Leiden Law Blog

Euthanasia as a Pro-Life Issue: What life do you want to lead?

Euthanasia as a Pro-Life Issue: What life do you want to lead?

Euthanasia is a reasonably relaxed issue in the Netherlands – as you probably know. Hopefully you’re not pondering this right now, that is to say considering or reconsidering your own existence. Still, if you should ever be confronted with a personal decision about euthanasia, any other assisted suicide or just suicide, the following comments may be helpful.

First a dangerous confusion must be put aside. Euthanasia is generally but wrongly regarded as a decision concerning life and death, or even worse, as a preference for death over life. This is reflected in the recent state commission report on “Completed life” (Voltooid leven”) which remained sceptical about euthanasia and the like as choices against life. What is more valuable than life itself? Is not the main measure of civilization and the rule of law the extent to which human life is protected?

Sure enough, but then the sanctity of life above the evil of death has got nothing to do with the issue of voluntary ending of life. As long as it remains completely unknown what it is to be dead (“I cannot be dead”) any choice between life and death is senseless in principle.

Adding to this experience is the fact that human life ends in death anyway sooner or later. So – and this is the main issue – euthanasia and other voluntary ending of life is, in principle, unrelated to any choice against life and for death “as such”. In fact ending your life, in as far as this can be rational at all, is going for a shorter and presumably better life against the prospect of a longer and rather less happy or even unbearable life. Why not shorten your life in the knowledge that otherwise a painful death will be a long and hard time in coming?

Thus, as such, any preference for natural death, even against human beings refusing to go on living, rests on a naturalistic fallacy (in fact much like some other so-called natural law conservatism in matters of abortion, birth, life, sex and death). Or: what makes an artificial death inherently less good or even evil, compared to any natural death?

Of course this does not condone murder and manslaughter in any way. But then the one and only overriding reason for condemning murder and manslaughter is the unwillingness of potential victims to die before their times.

Conceptualisation of euthanasia as a preference for one life-course over another is also not to suggest that such choices are straightforward. It may be nigh on impossible to predict one’s future life. On the other hand even young people may be subject to irreversible suffering, or may even lead no more than vegetative lives. May such merely vegetative lives be shortened even without the consent of the “living” involved? Does meaningful human life presuppose meaning in life? Or is this a slippery slope to socially indicated euthanasia?

Not all hard questions are answered by defining euthanasia and other voluntary ending of life in terms of life-courses: what life do I want to lead? Still, one legal implication may be that euthanasia and other assisted suicide are no longer issues of murder and manslaughter. Meaning, amongst other things, that assisted suicide ought not, in principle, to be a criminal offence.

The medical profession may no longer appeal to any Hippocratic oath prescribing the protection of life and thus prohibiting the killing of patients and people in general. Euthanasia and other voluntary ending of life are, in principle, about the quality of life, or: what is the best life to lead, given all humanly feasible possibilities? In fact the medical profession may be most valuable here in predicting the qualities of different life courses.

So let’s free euthanasia or any voluntary ending of life from the doom of death in principle. But do not step out of life till you’re really sure no more good is to come – or to be done. Talk about it if you think about it: you’re not alone.

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