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Are supporters of legalised euthanasia willing to listen to reason? Maybe not.
Facebook can be useful. Browsing through its weekly birthday update, I learned that Nick Tonti-Filippini, a bioethicist who serves on various Australian government committees and teaches at a Catholic institute in Melbourne, turns 55 today. Some of those years must have gone slowly for him, as he is chronically ill. Fortunately, he has the training to analyse his difficulties with critical detachment. So his reflections on euthanasia, whose publication in the local media today coincides with the celebration, are worth passing on.
He begins with a description of his condition:
Nonetheless, he says, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not the answer to his illness. In support of his contention he offers three arguments. First, Nick says, fear of being dependent can be a powerful motivation to seek euthanasia:
Second, the existence of a euthanasia option would undermine the development of better palliative care facilities. This notion is supported by many disability activists. They say that it spreads subtle and widespread expectation that death must be better than disability. "If the legalization of assisted suicide continues, I believe the rank and file will some day see nothing wrong with hastening the deaths of many people," writes disability expert Dr Carol J. Gill. "They will stand by and do nothing to stop it and will endorse the policies and institutions that advance it – not because they are evil people but because it will no longer be evil in our culture to do so. It will be compassionate, respectful, routine."
Third, Nick argues that no legislation will ever ensure that there can be no abuse. “Legislation that permits euthanasia could never be made safe for those of us who have serious chronic illnesses, because the essence of such legislation is to make respect for our lives contingent upon the strength of our will to survive.” The fact that euthanasia has been rejected in six countries over the past year (by my count), supports this. Committee after committee, in the UK, the UK, France and Australia has found that it is impossible to reconcile legalised euthanasia with the government’s responsibility to defend the disabled, aged and disadvantaged. Since Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1994, other American states have it debated it again and again. Between January 1994 and March 2011, there had been 122 legislative proposals in 25 states. All bills that are not currently pending were either defeated or languish in committees.
Three solid arguments from a well-informed academic with personal experience. You’d think that his insights would be treated with respect.
They weren’t. Comments on his article were running about 5 to 1 in favour of legalised euthanasia, and nearly all of them were passionately, gut-wrenchingly, venomous.
Coming to grips with his arguments was not on his readers’ agenda. They just wanted to make their own choice. As "Dreamer" put it,
Although Nick’s arguments were entirely secular, he was repeatedly slammed for being a Christian. In one all-too-typical comment, "Susan" noted:
The underlying philosophy was a rough-and-ready utilitarianism – that the value of life is the sum of its pleasures. As "Claudius" put it,
And on and on and on.
No one expects internet comments to be balanced and thoughtful, but the vituperation in today’s comments was unsettling. They reveal four things about euthanasia and assisted suicide. First, that support for euthanasia is so visceral that it defies reasoned discussion. Second, that it is so me-centred that every argument about its community impact will hit a brick wall. Third, from a utilitarian point of view, Christianity is a abominable force for evil. Fourth, that the notion of meaningful suffering is incomprehensible.
All this suggests that clashes between traditional human dignity and the debased utilitarianism which characterises public debate in Australia are all but insoluble. Ultimately the problem is that the side which sees meaning in suffering is willing to reason it out. The other side isn’t.
Solving conundrums like this is why people like Nick Tonti-Filippini are needed in public life. Happy birthday, Nick. Many more of 'em.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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