Wanted: “secular” arguments against “assisted suicide”

Polly Toynbee devotes her latest column to the issue of “assisted suicide”. She is strongly in favour of this, with the fervour of one who has (it should be noted) watched her mother die an excruciating death, and who clearly believes that assisted suicide would have been a better and kinder option. Even though I disagree strongly with her arguments, I have to acknowledge I have not yet been through anything like that kind of experience.

For Toynbee, the battle lines are clearly drawn. On the one side, there are “the religious”, bullying society into forcing people to die “excruciating physical and mental torture on people who want to die”. On the other, there are those campaigning for “civilised laws” in which the terminally ill are able “to ask their doctor for a kindly fatal injection”.

And as she says at the start of the article, victory for her side of the argument seems inevitable:

This battle will be won, make no mistake. It will be won before my generation, the baby boomers, go to our graves, just as we made sure no one could discriminate against us in middle age.

With the moment of victory at hand, the gloves can finally come off. No longer will palliative care be paid more than lip-service as an alternative to the “kindly fatal injection”. To be sure, Toynbee does indeed pay it the appropriate lip-service:

Palliative care is a wonderful thing, easing many people’s last months with the skill of this relatively new specialism.

However, her true attitude is revealed in the following sentences:

But it is a profession dominated by the religious, with a Mother Teresa attitude towards life: only God ordains birth and death. It has led to a conspiracy of silence about the many miserable deaths they cannot help enough; they mislead people into imagining that morphine, well administered, can keep everyone calm in a cloud of peace.

In other words, palliative care is a religious enterprise aimed at forcing people to stay alive, and misleading the public as to the nature and outcome of their work. Hard to see how the hospice movement can continue to grow if that sort of attitude towards its work becomes more widely accepted; if it is seen as a religiously-motivated conspiracy to cruelly withhold the “kindly fatal injection” from those approaching death or facing a life of incapacity.

This is an issue where I feel overwhelmed by powerlessness and despair whenever I contemplate it, because I have no doubt that Toynbee is right: that her generation, having redefined (to its own short-term advantage) every other stage of life, will succeed in redefining the boundary between life and death in the same way; and leave the rest of us to deal with the consequences later.

Part of the problem is the lack of traction for “non-religious” arguments against assisted suicide. The knock-down argument for the pro-euthanasia lobby is, “No-one’s forcing you to kill yourself in those circumstances; this is about individual freedom of choice. If your religious views compel you to live through agony, fine – but don’t force other people to do that when they don’t share your beliefs.”

But the fact is that we are moving inexorably towards a situation in which society’s attitudes towards life and death are going to be irreversibly altered. In which it is taken for granted that you live for so long as you have a certain basic level of health and capacity, and once you lose these you turn to the doctor and her/his “kindly fatal injection”. Any other option will come to be seen as quixotic, even selfish – just as the “kindly” option of aborting disabled children results in those who choose not to do so being condemned in some quarters for their selfishness.

That always has to be the basis of a “secular” argument against euthanasia: that, in the end, “choice” for the few will become compulsion for the many. But that is a relatively complex argument, and one that can be wafted away with a few mumbled words about maintaining “all the necessary safeguards”; while a combination of “freedom of choice” and sympathetic media portrayal of terminally-ill “right to die” campaigners sweeps all before it.

However, in the end I find it difficult to argue on this issue (not least because of my lack of direct experience as noted above). There’s not much I can do other than cry “Lord, have mercy!”

So, another appeal for assistance: what do people see as the best arguments against euthanasia, in particular arguments that are likely to be persuasive for those who have a largely secular worldview?

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14 Responses to Wanted: “secular” arguments against “assisted suicide”

  1. Gilles Mioni says:

    A secular argumentation to avoid euthanasia ? I believe only one may help to sustain life until the end :

    Keep strong hope that a medication or a medical procedure can improve your health.
    Hope until the end, fighting to stay alive.
    The desire to live a little longer take persons who do not fall into loneliness and isolation and have a passion to which they can devote themself to the very end of their lives.

    Susan Sontag was such a person.
    Read the great text wrote by her son, David Rieff.
    Swimming in a Sea of Death
    A son’s memoir

    But sometimes pain can be unbearableand in this case even words, even thought disappear.
    Illness too much violent. Crual tears.

  2. Along the same lines, and also along the same lines that the Anglican church IIRC wanted to say abortions before a certain age were ok:

    Technology and medicine change. If our answer for everything is suicide or abortion, there is less desire and patients for healing research.

    People may be in pain, or old, or disabled, or whatever, but they still have a place in society. They can come up with an idea, or they may provide some other unseen benefit. It is arrogance to “know” one can’t possibly be useful any more.

    Yeah, people are suffering more than I can ever imagine. My heart goes out to them. But if someone’s choice to kill themselves costs us a cure for cancer, well, that compassion is mitigated.

  3. Ryan says:

    You could always try Dylan Thomas’ wonderful poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” It may not be an intellectual argument, and it’s more from the perspective of the living who are losing the dying, but I think that’s a valid voice in the debate.

    In fact, this suggests to me that one could argue even from a secular perspective that dying in Western cultures (like many things) has become too individualized, and that the assisted suicide movement only threatens to make that more so. By choosing to end your life “early”, what are you perhaps depriving your family and community and world of? By at least some accounts, your life is not only your own, but is woven into a fabric of community–who are you to yank your thread out at your own will?

    Along this vein, I specifically wonder what a child would learn from experiencing the (perhaps difficult and agonizing) natural death of a family member vs. their assisted suicide? It’s not a simple answer, but I tend to think that one teaches patience and perseverance and tenacity, while the other teaches that you can and should “take leave of” your problems when it’s possible and when they seem intractable.

    By the way, I love your statement, “I have no doubt that Toynbee is right: that her generation, having redefined (to its own short-term advantage) every other stage of life, will succeed in redefining the boundary between life and death in the same way; and leave the rest of us to deal with the consequences later”

  4. Ryan says:

    Oh – something else I was going to mention. It seems that cultures that fail to build or retain a strong “ethic of life” tend to decline and cede the future to cultures that do have a strong life ethic. I believe we’re seeing this already in demographic and ethnic shifts across Europe and the United States.

    Call this divine providence, or call it natural selection, but it appears to be the way things work.

    This is sad in one sense, but it may provide some comfort to your worries: if the culture becomes decadent enough, it will eventually be replaced by one that is more vigourous and disciplined and willing to put up with hardship for the sake of eking out life. (The question then of course is whether this new culture will be predominantly Christian, or predominantly Muslim)

  5. Tom R says:

    It’s sadly ironic that Catholic theologians have spent centuries, and oceans of ink, constructing Natural Law-based arguments against euthanasia (and against abortion, contraception, homosexuality, interest-charging, etc) precisely to avoid the perceived weaknesses of appealing to “Because the Bible says so”, as Protestants are (reputedly) reduced to doing.

    The appeal to Natural Law doesn’t seem to have made the Catholic theologians’ arguments any more palatable to secularists like Toynbee who reject “arguments based on religious authority” on principle.

  6. Chris E says:

    Given that the secular mindset you refer to is also highly individualistic, I don’t see that there is any argument that would be particularly persuasive to anyone accepting the basic tenets of that world view.

    Essentially, there’s a strong flavor of Peter Singers thought here – that people’s humanity is to be measured by their capacities. Perhaps one hard corner case is that of the mentally handicapped, essentially going down this route renders them less ‘human’ in some way.

  7. Phil Walker says:

    Try the most recent Moral Maze. One of the panellists, Claire Fox, is as secular as they come, an out-and-out humanist, and consistent with her humanism, she fervently believes that human life has value, and that means that we should not signal that it is fine to throw it away through euthanasia.


    I’d also recommend Sp!ked, the heir to the old Living Marxism, which has managed to come with an interesting, if not confusing, list of policy positions. They are, for instance, pro-abortion and anti-euthanasia.


  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    I would want to distinguish arguing against a physician assisting suicides from making suicides illegal.

    The argument that a physician should not assist suicides would be rooted in vocation, and this standpoint is not purely religious, as reflected in the Hippocratic oath. The doctor should not be harming the patient. I would argue this even if I thought there were good grounds for believing in the validity of suicide.

    As a civil libertarian, I don’t want the state attempting to prevent people from committing suicide. I think the problem you run into is with the idea of ownership. While our lives belong to God, the civil law must choose between seeing it as belonging to the individual or to the state. To choose the latter is a bad idea. So I think people should be legally allowed to take their own lives, though I think we should strenuously try to persuade them not to do so.

  9. John H says:

    Rick: IIRC, suicide has been legal in England for several decades; it was legalised under the very piece of legislation that Polly Toynbee inveighs against as being cruel, medieval, religiously-inspired (etc.). This was done, not so much on libertarian grounds, as wanting to avoid the cruelty of attempted suicides then facing prosecution.

    What remains illegal is /helping someone else/ to commit suicide. And of course, legalising “assisted suicide” – in Toynbee’s sense of the “kindly fatal injection” – is, in any event, really a euphemism for, “making it legal for doctors or relatives actively to kill terminally-ill people in certain circumstances”; i.e. not a defence to a charge under the Suicide Act, but to a charge of murder.

  10. John H says:

    Phil: apologies for missing your comment in the moderation queue for a little while there.

    Sp!ked, the heir to the old Living Marxism, which has managed to come with an interesting, if not confusing, list of policy positions.

    Confusing and contradictory – but nonetheless fervently held – policy positions from the old RCP crowd? I’m shaken to the very core of my being! 😉

  11. Tom R says:

    I should amend ‘secularists like Polly Toynbee… reject “arguments based on religious authority” on principle’ to say ‘secularists like Polly Toynbee… reject “arguments stated by religious authority figures” on principle’

    In other words, if it’s a Pope, Cardinal, or other cleric saying “Reason itself tells you, or should tell you, that Xing is fundamentally inconsistent with the natural law upon which the universe operates,” that is dismissed as a “superstitious” argument from religious authority – just as much as if it were Joe the Layman saying “I read the Holy Scripture as saying that Xing is forbidden by God.”

  12. J.P. says:

    There is a simple natural law argument to be made as well. If we believe, as Americans, in the natural inalienable rights of man, then it is never the place for one human being (including family members, but especially not the government) to ever decide when another human being’s life is not worth living.

    Simplistic, yes – but it’s absolutely necessary if the natural right of “life” is part of our legal system. (Not to mention being against the doctor’s Hippocratic oath).

    That brings us to the one scenario when the person who wants to commit suicide is mentally competent to make his own decisions. But suicide is against the law, if for no other reason, because it is against the moral law that we know by natural law. Giving pain meds, or taking someone off life support is one thing, actually killing someone or helping them commit suicide themselves is completely another.

  13. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » “Political liberalism” vs culture war

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