Euthanasia and a “culture of death”

Last Thursday was the first “Openly Secular Day“, a new initiative from the Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDFS) and other secular and atheist organisations. Perhaps because of the RDFS’s involvement, I find the day to be a slightly wasted opportunity, in that it emphasises the atheism bit too much for my liking, thus impeding the important bit – secularism – unnecessarily.

Secularism is the important bit because it allows for atheist and theist folks to work together towards a common goal, which is the establishment of laws and policy that is neutral with respect to whatever your beliefs regarding supernatural entities and mystical agents might be. It’s obvious why atheists should care about this, and theists should care because they’d also not like religious laws, if those laws happened to derive from the utterances of a god other than theirs.

Anyway – for Openly Secular Day, the UCT Student FSI group asked me to address them on the importance of being openly secular which I happily did, highlighting the role that being “out” plays in normalising ideas and increasing social acceptability. A Pew survey from 2013, for example, revealed that 68% of respondents who personally know gay or lesbian people supported marriage equality, versus 32% of respondents who didn’t know any gay or lesbian people.

Waiting for us – perhaps coincidentally, I don’t know – on the tables of the lecture hall was a pamphlet from “UCT Students For Life” (for clarity, they are not making the claim that they will never graduate, but rather attesting their support for “life”, which is something like code for “God”), telling us how evil euthanasia was. I have included photographs of the pamphlet at the end of this post, for those who want to read it.

It tells us euthanasia will not “make society a better place”. A “culture of death” would form, wherein the elderly and disabled would apparently “be pressured to kill themselves”. Furthermore, lives are “supremely valuable in themselves”, and “we don’t have the right” to choose when people will die, whether “other people or ourselves”.

I’ve argued in favour of assisted dying many a time, including speaking in support of Belgium’s law permitting euthanasia in the case of children. Nothing in this pamphlet is at all persuasive, exactly because it simply appeals to a thinly-disguised religious argument, namely that because life is sacred, we can’t take any chances of making a mistake, and should leave things to unfold as God intended them to.

By contrast, I would say that because the living should be respected, they get to choose when it’s no longer in their interests to carry on doing so. I’d also say that the dividing lines between methods of life-preservation such as medicine, turning off life-support machines, and administering a deadly dose of a drug are far more tricky than this pamphlet acknowledges or its authors perhaps know.

Yes, of course they are right that you want to avoid situations in which granny is pressured to end her life so that you can inherit her yacht. But here’s the key difference between secular arguments and religious ones: the secular arguments take that desired outcome, and look at the evidence to see which policy most conduces to it.

As this paper documents, “in 2005, of all deaths in the Netherlands, 1.7% were the result of euthanasia and 0.1% were the result of physician-assisted suicide. These percentages were significantly lower than those in 2001, when 2.6% of all deaths resulted from euthanasia and 0.2% from assisted suicide”.

In other words, the availability of legal euthanasia decreased the numbers of people who took their own lives, a result you would not expect if it’s true that “a culture of death would form”. By contrast, having the option, and being able to decide when to die, is an important way of validating the importance of life, being able to choose how to live it, and when to end it.

I’ve told you before about DignitySA, a South African organisation that has been campaigning for our rights to make end-of-life decisions. Please consider supporting them in a general sense, but also specifically now, as Wednesday sees the start of an important and potentially historic case at the North Gauteng High Court, where Robin Stransham-Ford will be applying for the right to an assisted death.

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By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.