The title of this week's meeting should have made reference to old age. It is natural to think of old age and euthanasia at the same mental event. And if the push came to shove, we would include assisted suicide in the context.
It is unfortunate that, for a change in philosophy, we should be clear about the meaning of such emotional and distressing concepts as euthanasia and assisted suicide. The difference centres on who performs the last act that causes death. Administering the lethal injection to yourself is assisted suicide if the injection was handed to you by someone else. Someone else administering the lethal injection is euthanasia. That part is simple, how we get there is a whole legal, political, philosophical, religious and everything-else-you-care-to-think-of mine field.
The conflict we have at hand rests on two very basic philosophical concepts: death and pain. As I write this I am hearing a programme on the radio (BBC Radio 4*) where one of the speaker described life as negative entropy: instead of a system progressing into minimum energy, life is a system that turns into a higher energy system. If we accept this analogy, death seems to be the opposite of what we are all about. It is, but no one seems to have told entropy about it. The second issue we are dealing with is pain. However, pain seems to have the bad habit (sic) of getting out of hand. It seems that in some cases instead of serving as a warning sign, pain becomes as a cue for self distract. And if this was not bad enough, when we add family and professionalism we have a serious moral dilemma to deal with.
What are the arguments? Public policy interests prevent governments from sanctioning euthanasia and assisted suicide on the grounds that no one should have a licence to kill. Furthermore, some would argue that the medical profession should not be placed in a position of having to decide who lives and who dies. The pragmatists would argue that this already happens, so what the big deal? Again, people should be protected from coercion or pressure at their weakest moments. Indeed, it is a fine line to distinguish between a legitimate case of euthanasia and a manipulated case. So here is a practical moral question: should the dishonesty of some jeopardise the rights and dignity of the majority? And should we be pragmatists in this matter?
Let us move away from the traditional debate and look at the issues from different angles. It is generally assumed that euthanasia affects the elderly. True enough, but what is old? And even if we take the statistics at face value, women tend to live longer than men, so does this mean that euthanasia and assisted suicide are more of a problem for the female population?
It is true that the criteria for euthanasia and assisted suicide are pain, terminal illness and unacceptable deterioration quality of life. But should euthanasia and assisted suicide be also available to someone who is for sure going to suffer from a condition that will entail intolerable pain? In other words, is it acceptable to have euthanasia to prevent pain? A hypothetical question, I must admit, but nevertheless an interesting one.
However, euthanasia and assisted suicide should tax the minds and brains of professionals and politicians not just on the issue of killing. I will argue that euthanasia and assisted suicide raise more serious issues that focus on matters of life rather than death. In particular, should governments curtail or even prevent research that might have the answers to some causes of pain or the degeneration of quality of life?, For example, stem cell research, cloning research or foetal research. Mind you, I am not talking about the elixir of life here; I'm thinking of preventing diseases, a solution to transplant organs, pain control drugs, better therapy drugs and so on. Is there already a laboratory with some of the answers near you?
*Melvyn Bragg: In Our Time