Euthanasia: Determining Your Own Destiny?

by Jay Johansen
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I recently came across an editorial by someone whose opinions I generally respect, Wendy McElroy, who defends euthanasia on the grounds that everyone should have the right to "determine their own destiny". In this case, I must respectfully disagree with Ms McElroy.

(I found the editorial at,2933,102080,00.html. I don't know if it will still be there by the time you read this -- I don't know how long they keep them available.)

Ms McElroy's point rests on her careful definition of "euthanasia" to only include cases where the person has freely chosen to die. The problem with that definition is that it is not shared by any influential decision makers.

They'll imply it at times. Pro-euthanasia people routinely try to confuse the issue by painting a picture of some hard case, a person who is in terrible pain, only kept alive because he is tied up to a mass of machines, who begs the doctors to just unhook him and let him die in peace. Shouldn't this person be allowed to make this decision for himself? they ask. And when almost everyone answers "yes", they say, "Okay then, we're all agreed that euthanasia is good ... and of course if the patient doesn't consent and someone else makes the decision for him, that's the same thing."

The Schiavo case that Ms McElroy uses as the springboard for her discussion does far more to rebut her argument than to support it. Mr Schiavo claims that his wife made comments many years ago that she would rather die than be kept alive by a bunch of machines. Mrs Schiavo is now severly disabled, apparently conscious but unable to communicate. Mr Schiavo has ordered the nursing home to stop feeding her so that she will starve to death.

Mr Schiavo stands to inherit a substantial sum of money -- something like a million dollars -- if his wife dies. He is openly living with another woman whom he calls his "fiancee", and they have one child and another on the way. I don't claim to know what he is thinking, but surely it is fair to question his motives under the circumstances. We have only Mr Schiavo's word (vouched for by his brother) that this is what his wife said she wanted, and even if she really said it, this is his interpretation of what he thinks she meant by his best recollection of a casual comment she made ... what, 15 years ago? Yet pro-euthanasia people like Ms McElroy tell us that a belief in personal freedom means that we must just accept Mr Schiavo's word and kill his wife for him.

Ms McElroy says that if someone wants to die, that is their right to decide, and the government should not intervene. A person has the moral right to commit suicide if he freely chooses to do that to himself. She goes on at considerable length to make this argument. She says we should "respect the moral jurisdiction [everyone] has over her own life by defending her right to choose when that choice affects only her own body" and "people should determine their own medical destiny". We could surely debate that, but let's grant it for the sake of argument. Let's suppose that we believe so strongly in the ideal of personal freedom that we say that, even when your announced purpose is self-destruction, we sadly conclude that we must respect your decisions about your own welfare. Okay. But she then tosses in that key little piece of bridge work that pro-euthanasia people always do. As she puts it, "Consent is key. Ideally, if the person is unable to communicate, consent derives from prior-expressed wishes or from a guardian's knowledge and authority."

Wow. A belief in personal freedom means that we must give someone else -- your guardian -- the right to kill you. Does it really follow that respect for Mrs Schiavo's right decide her own fate is indistinguishable from the right of her husband to decide her fate? If I were to go out and shoot my ex-wife tomorrow so I wouldn't have to make any more alimony payments, and then I told the police or the courts, "Oh yeah, she said she wanted to die so I was just helping her out", would they really take that as the end of the matter, no need to press charges or even investigate further? I can just picture the puzzled policeman saying, "But chief, the man SAID that was what she wanted. Did you want me to call him a liar?" Would the feminists all rush to my defense, upholding the right of a woman to control her own body -- incidentally through the medium of her ex-husband?

While I would certainly hope that in the vast majority of cases, spouses or parents or children have the best interests of their relatives in mind, no one accepts that as the end of all discussion in any other case. We have laws against spouse abuse, courts routinely second guess parents' decisions about education and medical care, etc. In my opinion our courts and child welfare agencies are far too willing to declare that parents made a bad decision and their children should be taken away and put in the care of someone whose ideas about proper child-rearing are more like those of the judge or social worker. But even a parental-rights extremist like me does not insist that parents' authority should be absolute. Of course there are cases of abuse that is so blatant that it cannot possibly be called "discipline", or neglect so extreme that no reasonable person would consider it a mere difference of opinion. Our society has never had a problem saying that in general family members have great discretion in how they care for those who cannot take care of themselves, but that there are limits, points beyond which it is clear that this person is not acting in the best interests of his dependant, and the authorities must intervene to protect the helpless.

Except when it comes to killing a handicapped person -- for their own good.

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Posted 8 Nov 2003.

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