While the cultural battle rages most obviously around abortion, another threat to human dignity, euthanasia, has been in the background for decades. And while many will concede that the killing of an innocent child is morally questionable, they might disagree when it comes to euthanasia. After all, isn’t it more compassionate to allow someone to avoid the pain, embarrassment, and drawn-out suffering that old age so often brings? And aren’t those of us who want to force Grandma to live against her will somehow doing something inhumane? As Christians, it may be most natural to respond that only God may choose when we die and that people have dignity at every age, but with the average secular American, this tactic won’t work.
Fortunately, there are intelligent ways to argue against euthanasia without resorting to religious beliefs, and the easiest way to learn them is to divide the arguments into two categories: autonomy and quality of life.
The basic premise of the autonomy argument is that people should have the right to decide when they want to die. Proponents of euthanasia want laws allowing the elderly and terminally ill to have this option, but it’s impossible to limit this “right” to only certain people. What if an eighteen year old has been dumped by her boyfriend and decides that life is no longer worth living? Most people would agree that this is no reason to allow her to kill herself, but a law preventing such cases could be challenged on the basis of discrimination. In the Netherlands, for example, euthanasia was once limited to the terminally ill; today, children as young as twelve may legally seek euthanasia, and doctors have more power over their patients’ lives than ever before.
Another way to address autonomy is to explain how those seeking suicide are never truly autonomous. Two separate studies, one conducted in Missouri and the other in Great Britain, found that of those considering suicide, 93% suffered from a mental disorder that impaired rational decision making. Another study discovered that of the terminally ill, 24% expressed a desire for assisted suicide, but of that 24%, every single patient had a mental disorder. In other words, in the overwhelming majority of cases, depression or another mental disorder, not the illness itself, caused suicidal thoughts, and mental illnesses are treated separately. Remember, too, that it’s terrible to assume that because someone is terminally ill, they should want to die. Most people who receive a terminal diagnosis are sad because they want to continue living.
This brings us to the quality of life arguments. These are harder to argue because they are much more personal; people are concerned about living in pain, facing a life of disability, or being a burden upon a loved one. What most people don’t realize is that we have the ability to control pain in up to 99% of cases. Too often, however, doctors and nurses do not receive adequate education in pain management, leaving them helpless or unsure of themselves when their patients are suffering. Instead of focusing on euthanasia, we should work for greater education in pain management so that healthcare providers at a clinical level can use it. After all, killing someone in pain does not solve the problem of pain, and we shouldn’t solve problems by killing people.
Also within the quality of life category is the disability argument; in our culture, it is far too commonly assumed that because someone has a disability, that person’s life is not worth living. Besides being incredibly discriminatory, this is just wrong, and certainly not compassionate or respectful. Allowing a disability exception within euthanasia laws just says that anyone who doesn’t meet our standards is disposable. A better response is to work as a society to be more accommodating; for example, we already require new buildings to be handicap accessible, indicating that we value people in wheelchairs despite their inability to walk. Many people with disabilities will tell you that they only feel different when other people treat them that way. Somehow, I suspect that being told they qualify for assisted suicide isn’t what they have in mind when it comes to equality.
Finally, people are frequently concerned about dying alone or being a burden on their loved ones. However, telling the elderly that we will be “compassionate” and allow them to die is actually confirming their fears of being burdensome and unlovable. Instead, telling Grandma that we will care for her and love her no matter what is much more reassuring; it says that we value her as an individual, and not because she’s “useful” or self-sufficient. Caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for is part of the human experience, and no one could survive long without other people there to help them.
Many proponents of euthanasia may never have heard persuasive, rational arguments against it, so hearing the subject presented in this way might be the key to more fruitful discussion. For anyone seeking more information or interested in learning where these studies come from, National Right to Life has an excellent series of articles on euthanasia (found here), as well as other issues of medical ethics.