How can a country fight to prevent suicide with one hand and endorse it with the other? That is the question facing Canadians after the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision striking down the total ban on physician assisted suicide. This decision comes on the heels of a concurrent shift in public support for just such a decision. This growing support for legalized euthanasia is somewhat surprising, however, in that it comes at a time during which the public is becoming increasingly sensitive towards addressing and combatting the underlying triggers for suicide in other contexts. North American society as a whole has taken important strides towards removing the stigma associated with abuse, depression and mental illness, with the aim to provide compassionate avenues out of these distressing circumstances to those who see no other option than to take their own lives. We rightfully lament suicides as tragedies and vow to change our culture so as to reach out to individuals facing the same despair and hopelessness.
And yet what is the response when those seeking a way out of their suffering are the aged, the disabled, the terminally ill? Not a rousing endorsement of a palliative care revolution, providing quality pain relief and compassionate care to the suffering. Nor is it an army of friends or volunteers looking to provide comfort, empathy and a reversal of spirits for those whose anguish is magnified by isolation and a feeling of abandonment. Instead we suggest that the most merciful approach is to help them pull the metaphorical trigger; to remove the sufferer, rather than the suffering.
There are many possible reasons for this differential approach, and I hesitate to postulate on the most likely cause. What is clear, though, is that a certain cognitive dissonance is present in our attitudes towards the dignity of the human person, treating some deaths as tragedies and others as acts of mercy.
From a policy standpoint, these incongruous attitudes can interplay in two main ways. On the one hand, the cognitive dissonance can be maintained, remaining unexamined and under the radar. In such a case, the interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling can remain strict and narrow. From a pragmatic standpoint this could be seen as a (relatively) positive outcome for opponents of euthanasia in that it will keep the number of cases low. However, looking beneath the surface of such a policy one can find very troubling philosophical implications. In this circumstance, the underlying logic is that people become arbiters of the value of individual human lives, something which is incompatible with the ideals of liberal democracy but which is an attitude that has become increasingly prevalent in recent decades. In setting up a framework for the application of euthanasia, politicians, physicians, family members and citizens make decisions over what deaths are acceptable to expedite and which ones are not. They thus send a clear message to those individuals not fortunate enough to receive support and compassion which targets their symptoms that their state of life is one not worth ameliorating, but rather extinguishing.
The other possibility is that we will slowly begin to reject the arbitrariness of such an approach and simply do away with euthanasia regulations. Invoking such slippery-slope argument is often ridiculed as specious. However, in the context of legalized euthanasia, it is an argument which is vindicated by precedent. In Belgium, the legal right to assisted suicide has been extended to children. In the Netherlands, euthanasia has become an established medical option which is in many cases applied without explicit consent from patients. It is entirely plausible that such a similar erosion of regulation can occur in Canada, not simply because of a pattern but due to the underlying value shift that accompanies such a profound social and political decision. Once a society clears the moral hurdle associated with legitimizing and normalizing euthanasia, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate the practice because any efforts to do so become arbitrary. If it becomes acceptable to sanction and facilitate the taking of a human life on request, how can any third party have the moral authority to serve as an arbiter of when such a request should or should not be honoured?
None of this is to suggest that euthanasia is only to be avoided because of the difficulties surrounding its implementation. While such a consequentialist argument plays an important part in creating an informed public debate on the issue, the pro-life movement’s opposition to physician assisted suicide does not hinge on any specific regulatory dilemmas. As has already been explored in a previous paragraph, the legalization of euthanasia is ethically objectionable regardless of how strict or loose the regulatory framework is, because in either case the inviolable sanctity of human life is being undermined.
The only ethical solution to this dilemma is to maintain an unwavering opposition to the devaluation of human life in whatever form it takes. This may not be easy or politically palatable, but such has been true of many of the most important social justice movements of our history. In short, the solution to suicide is not to help someone pull the trigger. The solution is to take the gun away, and in its place put a hand of solidarity, love and compassion.