Non-Religious Arguments against 'Voluntary Euthanasia'

by Nicholas Beale and Prof. Stuart Horner MD (former Chairman, BMA Medical Ethics Committee)

Although we believe that a true rational understanding of moral issues can only ultimately be grounded on fundamental principles, which ultimately derive from religious faith, we believe that there are many many rational non-religious arguments for banning "voluntary euthanasia", in response to Dr Wood (Times Letters July 5th 1999) who says "Statistically I have a much higher IQ and am much better educated than most of the people who will read or respond to this letter. I know with complete certainty that there is no god and no afterlife. Why do people argue that I should be denied the choice of death rather than senility? I can only assume that their view springs from religious belief, and they are intolerant enough to force their view on nonbelievers by force of law. If any of them can produce a rational, non-religious argument in favour of banning voluntary euthanasia, I would be glad to hear it."

Click here for an interesting resource
Click the logo above for an interesting resource, or for the joint Anglican/CofE position
click here.

For example:

1. Legalising the deliberate killing of humans (other than in legitimate self-defence/war or possibly for the most heinous of crimes) fundamentally undermines the basis of law and public morality.

2. No system of safeguards could ever be foolproof, so in practice legalising ‘voluntary euthanasia’ would result in legalising involuntary euthanasia. This has been the experience in both Nazi Germany and, currently, in Holland.(ref)

3. Legalising ‘voluntary euthanasia’ on the basis of excruciating ‘hard cases’ would result in its being routinely practiced on a large scale. Bad cases do not make good law. One leading medical ethicist said more than twenty years ago "We shall begin by doing it because the patient is in intolerable pain but we shall end up doing it because it is Friday afternoon and we want to get away for the weekend"[1]. The precedent of abortion is chilling: "Aging Advisory Services" would offer a 1-stop shop where you could pop in your inconvenient relatives and, for a suitable fee, euthanase them in your lunch-hour.

4. Even if someone sincerely wants to be euthanasia this may well be due to depression or to a misapprehension of their true prognosis. Palliative specialists report that such requests are often used by patients to assess their worth and value to others. A positive response merely confirms their worst fears and such a decision, once acted upon, is irreversible.

5. Legalised euthanasia would produce huge social pressures on very vulnerable people to ‘volunteer’, causing much stress and suffering.

6. It would undermine the financing and provision of proper geriatric and palliative care: with stretched budgets euthanasia would be see as the cost-effective option. Indeed it would be very "cost effective".

7. It would also undermine funding of research into these areas.

8. Even without it being explicitly stated, legalising euthanasia (and presumably making it available on the NHS) would mean that the state was offering it as an alternative to people who were seeking benefits for sickness or unemployment or to pensioners, to refugees and people with disabilities. If it were legalised, why not then insist that such people have ‘euthanasia counseling’ before they receive care or benefits?

9. It would fundamentally undermine the relationships between elderly or dependent relatives and their families, with overwhelming pressures being applied on people to ‘take the honorable course’ and ‘not be a burden’.

10. It would fundamentally undermine the basis of trust between doctors and patients that is at the heart of effective medicine. Many people in Holland are rightly terrified of going to hospital and being euthanised against their will. Far from being the 'ultimate expression of patient autonomy' legalised euthanasia becomes the ultimate act of medical paternalism.

11. Any form of suicide is devastating for the people left behind who love the person who has decided that his or her life is no longer worth living: it is especially damaging for children.

12. Whereas the advocates of euthanasia are mostly members of the chattering classes who seem to be having difficulty in coming to terms with their own mortality, the victims would predominantly be the most disadvantaged members of society: the old, poor, disabled, infirm and unemployed.

13. Euthanasia would be executed by people who think "I have a much higher IQ and am much better educated than most of the people" with whom they interact, and claim to "know with complete certainty" that the deepest beliefs and aspirations of others are groundless.

Note 1: We have been asked about the source of the quote in 3: It is Professor Richard Hare (1971) Personality and Science: an interdisciplinary discussion CIBA Foundation p92

Responses by DR Wood

I emailed an earlier version of the above [missing point 12] to DR Wood and said "If you have any response to any of them I'd be happy to post it". His reply was "I can find little rationality in your 12 points. They are principally a statement of your opinions, and I can see no reason for preferring them to my own".

He now adds the following:

Here are answers to the first two of your twelve points, couched in your own, very imitable, style.
1. Legalising the deliberate killing of humans (other than in legitimate self-defence/war) cannot undermine the basis of law and public morality.
2. No system of safeguards could ever be foolproof, so in practice legalising the sale of bread knives would result in murder.

And so on. I really do not have time for such puerile nonsense. To be able to post notices that please you and censor those that do not must really make you feel like Master of the Universe. However, one thing that deserves a place on your web site is the response to my letter in The Times. I have received 18 letters and 21 e-mails, a total of 39 communications. Of these, 22 were unequivocally in support, 12 were "neutral" (agreeing in principle but raising other points such as unfairness to doctors) and five were against. It seems you have a lot more proselytising to do. Please let me know if you publish these figures.
A final comment. The underlying attitudes revealed in your letters are probably the most un-Christian I have met in any correspondence. The words "charity" and "humility" seem to be missing from your vocabulary. Just my opinion, of course.

And a reply from me:

1. I don't know what you think is fundamental to law and public morality: most of us consider the right to life pretty fundamental - it's certainly fundamental in any known declaration of Human Rights.
2. We don't make it illegal to sell bread knives, even though some murders may be committed with them, because that there is no evidence that murderers, deprived of bread-knives, would not resort to other weapons instead. Machine-guns (and now in the UK, handguns) are banned because, it is believed, at least some murders would not be committed if the guns were not available. In Holland 4,500 people were killed by 'euthanasia' in 1995 of which 900 were admittedly killed without their consent. Scaled up to the UK this would be 17,000 and 3,400 - by comparison breast cancer kills 15,000 pa, road accidents 3,600pa and all other forms of injury and poison 16,400pa - deaths by murder are probably under 2,000pa.

It's unclear what 'puerile nonsense' refers to - if it is to my points then it may interest you to know that a slightly revised set has been posted which are co-authored by me and Prof Stuart Horner MD, the immediate past chairman of the BMA's Medical Ethics Committee. If you are seriously interested in understanding this topic, you might care to see the views of a real expert in this field. I will post your comments (if any) and I have posted your last email in full.

I'm a little surprised that you attach any weight to replies to your letter, since they from people with a much lower IQ and much worse educated than you are. But if your education included statistics you would know that the sample so biased that it only proves that there are at least 23 deluded/evil people who read The Times - hardly news, alas.

If I have been un-Christian, uncharitable and un-humble (I wonder if you know what these words mean?) I beg your forgiveness. But it is a bit rich to write the most ludicrously boastful letter to The Times, calling for the killing of hundreds of thousands of your fellow-citizens and rubbishing the deepest beliefs and aspirations of billions or people, and then when the intellectual bankruptcy of your arguments is exposed to winge in this way! Can you not begin to see that 'trophies', 'IQ', 'much better education' and 'complete certainty' are worthless dross, and to recognise the deep Reality that alone underpin and give meaning and purpose to life. Without this Reality you face death, decay and despair: if you recognise and embrace the Loving Ultimate Creator it will be the crown of your full and successful life. I wish you joy and happiness in this your final quest: it will be your greatest achievement.

For further exchanges and other comments see here.

Background on Dr Wood

He claims to have an OBE and a PhD (in science, he is not a medical doctor) and seven years at the a semi-academic career in research, including supervision of doctoral students. He also says in his letter: "I am a near-octogenarian. I have led a full and satisfying life, receiving a professional award for excellence, an honour from the Queen and numerous trophies from physical and mental sports." He declines to elaborate on his background and I can find nothing on the web or in the limited reference books I have to hand to substantiate these claims. If anyone knows anything relevant about Dr George F Wood that would help people understand his position and background it would be helpful - do email me if you have anything to add.

Hosted by The Star Course - click to return.