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Libertarian case misses euthanasia complexity

  • 23 July 2018


When the big questions of life and death are asked, we often fall back on fundamental beliefs about the absolute rights and freedom of the individual. This is particularly true of the question of whether someone should be able to die at a time of their own choosing. The wants and feelings of individuals are seen to have priority, over and above other moral concerns.

But are the basic assumptions of such liberal individualism wrong? The libertarian argument for euthanasia and assisted suicide is attractive on the surface, but once it is questioned more deeply, its foundations and implications are troubling.

Former South Australian Liberal Senator Amanda Vanstone made a good display of a libertarian argument earlier this month: 'You shouldn't be able to take another person's life. But your own life is yours.' This line exemplifies the libertarian creed. However, most people do not apply it consistently.

Would we apply the same line of thinking to a teenager experiencing bullying? Or a Jehovah's Witness refusing a life-saving blood transfusion? Or a bread-winner who has lost their job and meaning in life? It is reasonable to regard any deaths that result from these circumstances as tragic, and as incumbent upon us as a society to prevent them. Why, then, allow and facilitate the deaths or suicides of the elderly or terminally ill?

Suffering and freedom are usually the top answers to this question. The libertarian argument focuses on freedom — that people should be able to control their own lives and avoid suffering. It is clear that no one has complete control over their lives all the time and can avoid all suffering. But should we be able to avoid unnecessary suffering?

In answer to this question, the libertarian argument for assisted suicide meets some problems. It inadvertently undermines liberty and individualism, and becomes fundamentally about compelling others.

Assisted suicide is not just a matter of being given a 'choice'. There is a whole system that would need to be created, with drug researchers and manufacturers, hospitals, doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians and family members all involved in facilitating this choice. Is this a fair thing to ask? Should we be enlisting the liberty of all these people to facilitate this choice?


"These changes would affect how the elderly or dying elderly see themselves, particularly those who feel pressured or lack support at the end of their lives."


The idea that some people should be able to compel the