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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Should doctor-assisted suicide be legal? No

Imagine if you will a country in which euthanasia has been allowed. Let us suppose that within this country over 1,000 people are killed involuntarily through euthanasia in a given year. At the same time over 40 percent of doctors in this country have performed involuntary euthanasia. In nearly 5,000 cases a year a doctor administers a morphine overdose to kill a patient without that patient's consent.

Now let us make it more concrete. Imagine a young infant with Down's Syndrome and a treatable intestinal blockage, which, if left untreated, will result in his slow starvation. His mother tells the doctors that she simply cannot bear caring for a retarded child and thus refuses to consent to the surgery. Instead of allowing him to starve, his doctors "charitably" euthanize him. Multiply such examples many times over.

Now stop imagining. What I just described is not some hypothetical example but fact. The examples and the numbers all come from the Netherlands where assisted suicide and euthanasia have never been legalized but have simply been permitted. In themselves they are chilling; brought into the context of the American debate they should be reason enough never to think of allowing doctor assisted suicide.

This is a question being asked increasingly in our legislatures, courtrooms and classrooms: Can we permit doctors to assist in or actively bring about the death of their patients? In all this talk about the so-called "right" to die, one large fact seems to be overlooked: What we are talking about here is the killing of human beings. Whether a doctor simply gives a patient the proper tools to kill himself or actually engages in active euthanasia a human being is killed. In this discussion let us never forget that.

One of the central principles of moral thought and of our culture, which flows out of the dignity of the person, is that one may never directly intend to kill another person. Applied to the case at hand, it should be clear what answer we receive. Euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide simply can never be justified for they are the killing of a human person. But here an objection can be raised: Euthanasia aims at ending suffering not the taking of life. Such an objection is however very specious. To achieve the end of suffering one kills. A doctor does not inject a lethal concoction of poison into a patient so as to cure suffering but to bring about death.

One might agree that euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide are morally wrong but still argue that the state has no business in regulating them. Others argue that one in fact has a "right" to die and thus the state must permit euthanasia. The second of these has already been indirectly addressed. Rights flow not from desires but from nature. There is no right to directly attack human dignity. The first objection, that even if euthanasia is morally wrong it still should be permitted, is morally hazardous. Those societies which fail to protect that dignity, or worse, actively engage in the pulverization of the human person are morally corrupt societies and border on illegitimacy. But more importantly in removing the state's protection of life, the most innocent who are always the most vulnerable are opened to great harm.

Should euthanasia be legalized here in the States things would be much worse than in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a strong social safety net and universal health care. Our medical system is bursting at the seams and HMOs put a great premium on cost efficiency. Immediately after the legalization of euthanasia, grandparents would be asked to let us put them to "sleep" so as to free us from the financial burden of caring for them. Doctors feeling the pressure to cut costs would begin recommending death over treatment. And what about those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's? They cannot freely consent to euthanasia but it would not be long until lawyers would be arguing that they deserve to have the right to die. At the same time the moral worth of those suffering would be downgraded. A society in which killing becomes a remedy for suffering soon becomes a society which tells, nay shouts, to those who are suffering, "You'd be better off dead."

In short the "right" to die as made manifest in euthanasia is a very scary proposition indeed. Not only does it contravene fundamental moral principles but moreover it undercuts the free and virtuous social order. It translates into a license to kill and more precisely it becomes a license to forget about the poorest and most downtrodden of our society: the retarded, the depressed, the economically impoverished, minorities and the uninsured. In place of our duty to comfort personally those who are suffering and hurting, it gives us Dr. Kevorkian and his death machine. In the place of love, it gives us poison. The thought of such a "culture of death" should make us recoil and ultimately turn against any fanciful thoughts of allowing doctor assisted suicide.