The West is tearing itself apart. The symptoms are evident in our bitterly divided politics and the attempts to punish those with heterodox views. But they are particularly evident in the ongoing collapse of the sanctity of human life ethic, which holds that each of our lives are immeasurably precious regardless of our personal circumstances.
Alas, the sanctity of life ethic has been abandoned in whole or in part throughout the West. Instead, many now adhere to the “quality of life” ethic, which holds that the value of one's life is relative to one’s abilities, capacities, and state of health.
Unlike the sanctity of life ethic, the quality of life ethic does not abhor the taking of innocent human life. Rather, it perceives killing as an acceptable means of ameliorating human suffering, particularly if the afflicted person wants to die.
These attitudes have led to radical legal changes throughout the West. Alas, the culture of death is on a roll. Just this year, several countries legalized euthanasia, expanded existing euthanasia laws, or prepared to open that lethal door in the near future.
- Germany: Last February, Germany’s highest court conjured from the country’s constitution a positive right to commit suicide—at any time and for any reason—and created an ancillary right for anyone who is willing to assist. “The individual’s decision to end their own life, based on how they personally define quality of life and a meaningful existence,” the court ruled, “eludes any evaluation on the basis of general values, religious dogmas, societal norms for dealing with life and death, or consideration of objective rationality.”
- Austria: An Austrian court issued a similar decision in December, ruling that committing suicide is a right of “self-determination,” and that said right includes receiving help from another person. As of this writing, it is unclear whether the government will appeal.
- Spain: The Spanish Parliament voted to legalize voluntary euthanasia if the person wanting to die has a “serious and incurable illness” or “a serious, chronic and impossible condition” that entails “constant and intolerable physical or psychic suffering.” The law will probably go into effect in the first half of 2021.
- Portugal: Portugal’s parliament voted to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide for the seriously ill in situations of suffering and incurable illness. A final vote to pass the law is expected in January, although opponents still have options to delay or overturn the law.
- New Zealand: After years of intense efforts to legalize euthanasia, this year New Zealand’s government decided to hold a referendum on the question. Voters supported legalization with an overwhelming 65 percent of the vote. Starting November 6, 2021, those with “unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable” will qualify to have their lives ended by a doctor.
- The Netherlands: The Netherlands, which formally legalized medicalized killing by lethal injection in 2002, legalized pediatric euthanasia this year by repealing all age limits. Euthanasia rules for killing the elderly were also liberalized. In response to a criminal court ruling—which exonerated a doctor who instructed family members to hold down their struggling mother with dementia as the physician administered a lethal jab—the law now permits dementia patients who have asked to be euthanized upon becoming incapacitated to be drugged before they are killed. It also permits doctors to decide when the time has come for the patient to die.
- Canada: Canada legalized euthanasia upon instructions from the country’s Supreme Court in 2015. The government is now in the process of expanding eligibility to permit the killing of patients with dementia who have asked to die in an advance directive, and to loosen the requirement that death be “reasonably foreseeable.”
When I entered the fray as an anti-euthanasia activist in 1993, only Switzerland had explicitly legalized assisted suicide. Since then, in addition to the above, lethal injection euthanasia has been legalized in Luxembourg, Colombia, the Australian state of West Australia, and Belgium. Switzerland’s once sleepy assisted suicide law has been deployed to allow “suicide tourism,” that is, people traveling to the country to pay a suicide clinic to help them kill themselves. Assisted suicide for the terminally ill is also legal in the Australian state of Victoria and eight U.S. states have passed laws permitting physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill: California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, Vermont, Maine, and New Jersey. It is also legal in the District of Columbia. A murky court ruling in Montana also may permit legal assisted suicide.
In the face of this discouraging news, I am often asked whether opponents of euthanasia can “win.” I think that question misses the point. Resisting assisted suicide and euthanasia isn’t about “winning,” but saving lives. So regardless of how things ultimately turn out, those of us who understand that hastening death corrupts medicine and abandons the vulnerable have no choice but to continue resisting the toxic tide for as long as we can, understanding that caring rather than killing is the way to show true compassion to all suicidal people—regardless of the reasons they may have for wanting to die.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His latest book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine.
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