June 6, 2011

Falling Down the Slippery Slope

Jack Kevorkian died last week, he the most famous, and most notorious, proponent of assisted suicide the country has known. In the grand scheme of things, I’m on Jack’s side – people should have a right to end their own lives, with assistance if necessary. Ensuring proper safeguards to prevent abuse, etc. Nonetheless, I recognize that due to his own eccentricities and lust for the spotlight, Kevorkian may not have been the right advocate to make that case to the nation.

Nevertheless, he certainly shifted the debate and brought a lot of light to the issue. And his death has caused worried thoughts, like those of Ross Douthat’s in the New York Times. He notes that the sentiment into which Kevorkian tapped was genuine, and keeps most from viewing Kevorkian’s cause “as a form of humanitarianism rather than a criminal enterprise.” He goes on:
The difference, of course, is that Kevorkian’s clients asked for it. That free choice is what separates assisted suicide from murder, his defenders would insist.

But this means that the moral case for assisted suicide depends much more on our respect for people’s own desire to die than on our sympathy for their devastating medical conditions. If participating in a suicide is legally and ethically acceptable, in other words, it can’t just be because cancer is brutal and dementia is dehumanizing. It can only be because there’s a right to suicide
Yes? And? The problem with that is? I’ve got no problem coming at the issue from the standpoint of individual liberty and autonomy rather than some squishy notion of what is or isn’t “dehumanizing.” The whole point is that what one person experiences as a terminal obstacle that can be overcome, with some difficulty, on a daily basis is another person’s unbearable agony. What right do I have to tell you, “it’s not that bad, you’ve got lots to live for”? Maybe you don’t – how could I possibly know?

Douthat doesn’t really do the heavy lifting necessary to justify that concern. Rather, he just tumbles down the slippery slope into a squishy puddle of horribles:
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best.
Contrary to his assertions that is, in fact, a “hypothetical slippery slope,” given that he cites no evidence of it actually occurring anywhere. Any system of human endeavor, including legal regulation of death, is bound to be imperfect and subject to abuse. That’s no reason from recognizing a vial right to control their own destiny for the multitudes whose deaths wouldn’t involve any horribles. Honestly, we tolerate thousands of accidental deaths every year from things as varied as guns, medical procedures, and automobiles. Nobody honestly argues for getting rid of them as a result (well, except the guns).

The funny thing is, the right to end one’s life is one of those rights, like the right to free thought, that can never really be taken away. Assuming a person is physically competent and the procedure works correctly, there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do once the act is complete. Only failures, or those who would provide assistance, can be punished.

I’m not pro suicide. I can’t see myself ever doing it and I certainly hope none of my friends or loved ones do, either. And I understand that a lot of suicides are the result of mental illness and other factors that call into question the actor’s free will. The answer to those problems, it seems to me, is better mental health care and societal support for people in need. It’s not to bring the heavy hand of criminal law into the equation.

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