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Why has the anti-euthanasia case been so unsuccessful?

  • 03 June 2021
This is an excerpt of Margaret Somerville's full essay, available to read here. The case for legalising euthanasia is easy to make in contemporary postmodern Western democracies, especially those in which moral relativism and utilitarianism are the main philosophies informing the dominant worldview of a given society.

Moral relativism takes a stance that nothing is absolutely or inherently wrong, rather what is right or wrong all depends on the circumstances and the individual person’s preferences. Utilitarianism in the context of euthanasia proposes that euthanasia is a means that has an outcome or end goal of reducing suffering and, therefore, can be justified and is ethical. The discussion and analysis of the impact of legalising euthanasia is limited to only the present time — I call this restriction ‘presentism.’ What we could learn from both our ‘collective human memory’ (the past or history) and through our ‘collective human imagination’ (the likely impact in the future) are ignored or denied.

The pro-euthanasia case is promoted and buttressed by stories of ‘bad’ natural deaths, those where great suffering is experienced, and ‘good’ euthanasia deaths, those were suffering is promptly and completely eradicated through the intentional extinguishing of life, itself, by using euthanasia. The media, which overall has a bias towards legalising euthanasia, are especially prone to presenting euthanasia as a topic for discussion in the public square in this manner, that is, with a focus on an individual suffering person and only taking into account the immediate impact in the present of providing that person with euthanasia.

The case against euthanasia is much more difficult to promote, not because it is weak — it is not — but because it is much more complex.

This case requires looking, not just to the present, but also to our ‘collective human memory’ for lessons from the past and to our ‘collective human imagination’ to try to anticipate the full and wider consequences of legalising euthanasia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have much to teach non-Indigenous Australians in this regard.

While the individual person and their wishes and respect for their right to autonomy are always important considerations they are not alone sufficient considerations, if we are to make wise decisions as a society with respect to the legalisation of euthanasia or, if legalised, its governance. That requires taking into account the immediate and long-term, wider ramifications of authorising physicians, and in some cases nurses, to end the life of another