Euthanasia and Society’s Most Vulnerable Members

A recent editorial in the Toronto Star provides a critical examination of the dangers associated with the legalization of euthanasia. It was written by Dr. Heidi Janz, a professor at the University of Alberta who has a physical disability, in response to a bill introduced by Canadian Member of Parliament Steven Fletcher which seeks to decriminalize assisted suicide. In the editorial, Dr. Janz discusses her fears around how legalizing euthanasia would increase “the social vulnerability of every single disabled and elderly Canadian” by legitimizing the belief that death is preferable to certain life conditions, however limited they may be by illness or injury. She notes how this attitude is offensive to the dignity of individuals with disabilities, and also provides a real risk to such individuals in that the preservation of their life may not be appropriately prioritized, either by medical professionals or society as a whole.

What was most striking for me about this article was its implicit yet powerful repudiation of the argument that euthanasia is a strictly private, personal matter, and as such should not be a criminal offence. As always, the answer is never so simple. The implementation of legalized euthanasia would require a fundamental reshaping, amongst other things, of society’s conception of justice, the goals of medical care and the inviolability and dignity of the human person. Once such a rethink, already seemingly in process, is normalized, what was once argued to be a private matter will become subject to powerful societal forces. And, as Dr. Janz so eloquently demonstrates, in situations like this it is the already-vulnerable who stand to suffer the most. In a time of legalized euthanasia, there will be countless instances of caregivers, family or medical professionals, motivated by factors ranging from malevolence to a tragically misplaced sense of mercy, who suggest, encourage or implore others to make the decision to end their own life. And for those who are vulnerable, those without a voice, such a cacophony around them will lead many to reluctantly make this decision. Moreover, Dr. Janz points out that in many cases, the doubts, fears and desires to die associated with a disability or terminal condition may only be transient; the delivery of more supportive and compassionate medical care, or a society which prioritizes love and hope over death and expediency, could reinvigorate a person’s desire to live. But if the decision to die is one which is legal and therefore easily implemented, there is no going back; no opportunity to explore what could have been, how much more self-actualization that individual may have been able to achieve. Certainly these potential consequences indicate that legalized euthanasia represents far more than the emancipation of individual choice; it represents a complete rethink of how our society interacts with some of its most vulnerable members.

Our appreciation of the dignity of the human person has taken many massive strides over the centuries of human civilization. Adopting legalized euthanasia would represent a step backwards in this respect, one which would most profoundly impact those who are most in need of society’s protection.

The full article by Dr. Janz can be found at the link below:

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