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Libertarian case misses euthanasia complexity



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.

Holding hands with sick old womanBut 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 rest of us to legitimise or facilitate their death is also naive. What might be the unintended consequences of creating and maintaining all this activity around assisted suicide? How might it affect or change our freedom?

Such a system brings about consequences that will be borne by those remaining alive, not those dead. Those consequences usually include changes to the doctor-patient relationship and the health and legal system as well as neglect of the palliative care system. It also includes the high possibility of abuses that compel or lead to the deaths of the dying and elderly who didn't want to die.

Based on evidence of existing euthanasia and assisted suicide regimes, the chairman of New Zealand's parliamentary commission into euthanasia, Simon O'Connor, remarked: 'It is very difficult to see how there could be sufficient safeguards to actually protect vulnerable people in New Zealand. And that's been the experience overseas as well. It probably comes down to the simple question of "How many errors would Parliament be willing to accept in this space?"'

There are also the underlying changes to how life, death and hope are constructed in a society. These changes will affect how the elderly or dying elderly see themselves, particularly those who feel pressured or lack support at the end of their lives. It also sends a message about life and suffering to everyone, which has led to the expansion of euthanasia and assisted suicide to the young or those in distress in some countries.

In her piece, Vanstone also invoked God to help her libertarian position, claiming God would not be too concerned by euthanasia and would not want humans to police people's lives. This is a poor construction of God.

For Christians, God is deeply concerned for each of us and for our good. This concern is not about 'policing' our lives, but about calling us to deeply respect them and live them to the fullest. This means everyone is entitled to the best medical care to alleviate their pain, which our medical system can do with a high degree of efficiency if proper care is given. This does not mean unnecessarily prolonging life.

It also means not seeking to have absolute control over one's own life or another's life. To kill or assist someone to kill themselves is to take absolute control over a life. For the state to license this sort of control over a person's life is unprecedented and means opening the possibility of state-sanctioned abuses.

Moreover, to cut off life means missing potential moments of self-revelation and opportunities for care and solidarity from others, especially from family. I remember that, when my grandmother was dying, though it was a difficult time, our opportunity to show love and care for her as a family was an unexpected blessing.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as simple as they seem. Libertarian arguments ultimately fail to deal with the complexity of life, liberty and love.



Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, euthanasia, Amanda Vanstone



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Existing comments

Jess Joel, life is complex and complicated and that applies to death as well as to sex, procreation, birth, marriage, commitment and all the other questions with which we struggle. But a blanket ban on all forms of euthanasia is just as simplistic as the libertarian's individualistic position. And whose needs are being met when you posit 'our opportunity to show love and care' as part justification for your position ?

Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2018  

When a person dies other people are intimately involved. Their spouse, their descendants and friends. These two statements make presumptions: that they are married and have a spouse still living, that they have children, that their close friends are living. Still, it's a time of not knowing, perhaps trusting, but not knowing. So people want to control what little control they have. I believe good quality palliative care is a fundamental right of every person. Our health system should be about supporting this person through this most emotional time.

Pam | 24 July 2018  

Thanks for this article Joel. Among many good points you state: "These changes will affect how the elderly or dying elderly see themselves, particularly those who feel pressured or lack support at the end of their lives." This is very serious and I believe can particularly apply to women. In a society such as ours where women are not even guaranteed the same salary for the same work as men, it is a concern. If the value of your work during life does not attract the same financial reward as men, why would anyone think that your worth at the end of life is suddenly on a par with them? That which is considered of lesser importance is, by implication, more dispensable. If euthanasia is legalised there would be a subtle shift in consciousness over time. It would involve a new calculation about the rationalisation of health and other resources. It would lead to the expectation that one should consider the burden one is to family, society, tax-payer. And this shift would have greater effect on women than on men, given their demonstrated lesser status.

Susan Connelly | 24 July 2018  

Thank you Dr Hodge for providing another view on euthanasia. You raise some really important questions here - euthanasia is highly complex, as is life. We must look after the vulnerable in our society - it would be devastating to see the elderly or people with a disability pressured into accepting euthanasia because society comes to see them as a burden, rather than opportunities for us to provide care and dignity to them. What is a life worth living? Will legalising euthanasia fundamentally change our views on this? As a health professional working for many years in a hospital I saw this. When my grandmother was in hospital very sick (but not dying/terminal) I noticed she was aspirating so I mentioned it to the intern doctor and asked for a speech pathology assessment. The intern said “they’ll just put her on thickened fluids and that’s no quality of life. Just let her deteriorate.” My grandmother was for thickened fluids, but the intern doctor refused to make the referral because *he* didn’t agree it was quality of life. If society’s attitudes change towards quality of life and life itself then where does it stop?

Eve | 24 July 2018  

Great article, Dr. Hodge. The idea that some people should be able to compel the rest of us to legitimise or facilitate their death' is not only naive. It is abhorrent. As a mature nurse, I worked in a tertiary hospital when abortion was legalised. I watched in horror as doctors prescribed abortifacient drugs and walked away, leaving nurses to administer them. Some of my colleagues not only refused to have anything to do with the women who had chosen abortion, but also treated those women without courtesy, let alone charity. The situation could easily arise with euthanasia that others, perhaps lower in the health hierarchy, would be expected and pressured to administer the lethal medication against their wills.

Maureen Helen | 24 July 2018  

These concerns about euthanasia are very appropriate. Life does involve suffering, sometimes this is taken on voluntarily eg by athletes in training, sometimes involuntarily eg by the parent of a drug-addicted child, or by a person whose partner has an affair. There is fortitude in this kind of suffering. The suffering of those with degenerative or terminal illnesses is often thought to be useless, but this can never be assumed, especially from the standpoint of Christian Theology. Attempts to insist others should agree that one’s illness-caused suffering is unbearable and can only be alleviated by death has a sense of coercion about it that is the antithesis of the exercise of the free choice it purports to advocate. A second assumption is that how one ends one’s life has nothing to do with the kind of existence one might experience subsequently. It is all very well to say: ‘I don’t care about your religious views, the only compassionate way to treat me is to do what I ask and kill me (gently)!’, but if the person making these demands were truly autonomous, they would not need to ask others for this help, nor ‘guilt-trip’ them to do so!

Paul Burt | 24 July 2018  

Hi Joel, My decision and wishes are based on my own circumstances of life that make my wishes and decisions on assisted dying .... Mine are a Father who had Mesothelioma (no cure) a terrible death (I was one of his carers) ....As a nurse of 52 years now retired and aged 82 this October I want my choice of how I die if I am in a state of not knowing of a life of meaning. My my last years to be MINE and mine only not dictated by some other person...or law.....that others have decided it right.I base my decisions on my life experience Lois Daley 25/7/2018

lois daley | 25 July 2018  

Nice work, Joel. Keep speaking up against the waverers in our presumably Catholic midst!

Michael Furtado | 26 July 2018  

Yes, thank you Joel for your intelligent, thoughtful and faith-filled article. Unlike Michael Furtado, I do not believe that being a waverer makes one 'presumably Catholic'!

Elizabeth Harrington | 26 July 2018  

There is no secular principle against euthanasia, merely some prudential arguments to do with protecting the subject or administrators of euthanasia against coercion, none of which refute a posited principle that a free person of sound mind may take any action he or she pleases which does not violate another’s rights. If someone with no family or friends decides that no one will be bereaved by his desire to see what lies on the other side, who can complain for their own sakes against him? Tort applies only to those who may reasonably be expected to suffer loss by an act. The secular Right claiming that ‘safe space’ is not needed by a person of ordinary toughness, they cannot now insist, moral or physical coercion aside, that a general right to commit suicide invades the right of a member of society to feel safe. The secular Left claims that laws can be tweaked to make the general principle go easier on the deplorables who insist on feeling unsafe. There is no secular principle because why should God bend over backwards to make it easy for humans not to believe in him?

Roy Chen Yee | 27 July 2018  

Great post, Elizabeth; but, as a liturgist par excellence, you must know that good liturgy is founded upon good theology and that because so much of our (Catholic ) theology, such as in the instance of the sacramentology of marriage, is underdeveloped or locked into the dim dark days of a past that bears very little contextual relevance to the present, many Catholics are turned off it. As with matrimony, and the plethora of Catholics who marry outside of its rules, so also with the Sacrament of the Sick and what it offers to us as we age and, inevitably, die. The Church has been too slow in acknowledging that it does not teach about the extenuation of life at all costs, but instead has always prudently taught against the extenuation of suffering through its adherence to the principle of double effect. Unfortunately, the many fundamentalist Jansenists in our Catholic midst do not either understand or condone this, and are so locked into a warped mindset that privileges pain and atonement that many Catholics are properly but mistakenly revolted by this. My plaint, in favour of Joel's argument, was against the many Catholics favouring euthanasia over such a fundamentalist distortion.

Dr Michael Furtado | 29 July 2018  

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