Wednesday 15 July 2009

Voluntary sex okay; why not voluntary euthanasia?

With the inspiring and touching news of the assisted suicide by Sir Edward Downes and his wife, is it not time for further thought on the matter of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia – and a change in the legislation?

This couple had to travel to Switzerland, instead of having their deaths in familiar surroundings, maybe with friends. This couple were lucky enough to have the knowledge and money at least to make use of the Swiss facilities. How unfair for others needing to embrace death, yet who lack of the wherewithal!

When lives have gone well, the need to embrace death is obviously very sad; but not as sad as spending a last few months or years in pain, distress, or hopelessness. Of course, some religious believers speak of the sanctity of human life – though we may note that that concern does not usually extend to giving up many luxuries to help the starving and the dispossessed. Some religious believers speak of not interfering with God’s ways – yet, as David Hume pointed out, they happily interfere with God’s ways when those ways are pointing to death.

Of course, what is often wheeled out is the slippery slope argument. If voluntary euthanasia is permitted, the slide will commence and we shall end up with many cases of people being persuaded to go for euthanasia, being pressurized into it – even into our accepting blatant involuntary euthanasia.

Were that sort of argument sound, then surely this one would also be sound. We should not permit voluntary sexual intercourse. In permitting it, we are giving the green light to people being persuaded against their true feelings into having sex, to date rapes and blatant violent rapes. Yet, no one seriously puts forward that argument. Why? Because they know that there is a clear distinction in many, many cases between someone voluntarily saying ‘yes’ to sex and someone not voluntarily saying ‘yes’. The slope is avoided through educating people about the importance of consent – and through the law.

We permit voluntary hairdressing. Do we, as a result, fear that people will slide into being frogmarched to the hairdressers?

We value people being allowed to flourish in their lives as best they can. A flourishing life – a full life – may often need to have regard to how death will come about. That is part of a flourishing life – and if people want to round off their lives in certain ways, instead of the ways of pain, indignity and hopelessness, then we ought not to interfere. It is a simple matter of the value of autonomy with regard to this most important matter. For more on this – well, modesty does not forbid – try my Humanism: a beginner’s guide.