11 March
2014

Physician-Assisted Suicide is an Affront to Human Liberty

Liberty is a premise upon which physician-assisted suicide is routinely advanced. Some of those suffering from serious and incurable illness or distress seek to argue the case that their suffering is a bondage from which only death can free them. Such suffering is, of course, naturally subjective in the sense that what one person might heroically and joyfully continue to embrace in life another with less pain or sadness might wish to end by death. One is reminded of disfigured people embraced by Pope Francis whose lives are undoubtedly filled with suffering but who nonetheless see them as worthwhile. The kind of liberty espoused by advocates of assisted suicide is a very personal one that somehow transcends any public measure or ‘scale of suffering’, in much the same way as the meaningfulness of life, and indeed of the kind of liberty experienced by those embraced by Pope Francis, is also very personal.

Concerns raised by opponents of assisted suicide, and in particular by those who care for the elderly and disabled, are met by the argument that the worth of life experienced by, say, a person with Down’s Syndrome or dementia is private and incommunicable and should therefore not be used to argue against a doctor prescribing a lethal dose, and indirectly to prolong suffering by one who views his or her life as worthless. In both cases appeal is made to a view of life’s worth that is publicly incommunicable. It is beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not had direct experience of that kind of worth or hopelessness. Such appeals must therefore be seen in their proper context as just one part of a much wider debate in which Lords, MPs and voters alike seek to gain some purchase on what is at stake and why. In matters of physician-assisted suicide we should not appeal to subjective experiences of value except to qualify some more profound point or other about human liberty or the sanctity of life.

Since the legalising of physician-assisted suicide is presented as an issue of liberty, it is within a context of liberty that these proposals will be discussed. Moreover, such legislation has doctors in its sights, for we are not treating of a private kind of liberty experienced when one has a more or less optimistic view of the world, but of one that touches all, and medical professionals in particular, regardless of whether they think a particular life worthwhile.

Insofar as medical practitioners may be required to prescribe a lethal dose to a person requesting it we must acknowledge that the State would be requiring doctors to provide a ‘service’ in response to a claim based on immeasurable experience of suffering and on subjective experience of liberty. On a merely rational foundation there is no valid liberty-based argument whatever to assist anyone in ending his or her life any more than there is one to assist anyone in selling himself or herself into slavery. Death, like slavery, is actually the very destruction of the liberty in the name of which proponents of assisted suicide seek to make their case. Tolerance of non-medically-assisted suicide such as the State affords today is given only because prosecution of failed suicide would only  compound the mental anguish already deemed by the subject to render life intolerable.

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