In 2014, Belgium extended their euthanasia laws to include children. This year, the first case of a killing of a minor, unnamed to protect the family’s privacy, has been confirmed. The presumption of the goodness of life over death has eroded far.
Two other cases in the 2010s drive the point further: in 2012, a British mother, Charlotte Fitzmaurice, petitioned and was granted the legal right to kill her disabled, suffering but non-terminal daughter, Nancy Fitzmaurice. In 2013, two adult, able-minded, deaf twins, Marc and Eddy Verbessem, chose euthanasia at the onset of blindness.
With these examples of non-terminal patients choosing death, and–startlingly–of children having death chosen for them, the protections around human life appear near to non-existent. Admittedly, the suffering involved is severe enough to give us pause, but as the slope of preferring death to life becomes steeper, I worry that the philosophical grounds undergirding these cases create more of cliff than a slope, a cliff that actually has no basis for affirming the value of life at all.
The question of pain is an important one and it has come to frame the arguments in favor of mercy killing. But what also needs to be asked is whether or not pain, fear or disability override the inherent imperative to preserve life. Proponents of legalized euthanasia argue that pain, fear of loss of functioning and severe incapacity do indeed trump any claim to the intrinsic dignity of life.
In the countries and provinces where assisted suicide (wherein the patient participates) and euthanasia (where the doctor administers the death-dealing substance), the social context seems indifferent or almost laudatory to the cases that make the news. Concerns about the dignity or goodness of life rarely appear, and they are painted as antiquated.
Accordingly, legal approval of euthanasia has expanded: in 2006, Oregon defended euthanasia laws, and 2008 saw both Luxembourg and Belgium legalize the practice. It was originally for the elderly, the terminal, those in severe pain. Since end-of-life laws gained traction, they have crept to include those who cannot choose for themselves (the senile and disabled), to children (as in the case of the Belgian child), to those facing the non-terminal but frightening loss of functioning (the Verbessem twins), to combinations of these–disabled children who suffer but are non-terminal, such as Nancy Fitzgibbons.
In many countries today, terminal conditions are a requirement of the past in order to warrant euthanasia. In the Netherlands, “The suffering need not be related to a terminal illness and is not limited to physical suffering such as pain. It can include, for example, the prospect of loss of personal dignity or increasing personal deterioration, or the fear of suffocation.”
With these subjective guidelines, there are no longer functional, legal protections on any state of life in many states and nations. A person with severe Depression, for example, suffers great emotional anguish that he or she feels can only be resolved by death. There is nothing in principle to formally disqualify such a person from euthanasia. This actually happened to a woman only identified as Eva in Alexander Decommere’s documentary End Credits.
If we cannot in principle rule out death for the physically sound, on what grounds do we have to argue for that any life is worth living?
Suffering is difficult–very difficult. And yet, we all suffer to varying degrees and in different ways, in ways that change throughout a person’s life.
The existence of severe pain does not overtake the philosophical reality of being–of existence, that is is essentially good for human beings to exist regardless of their level of disability. In hard cases, this becomes very difficult to see. But where it is hardest to see, is precisely where it is most important to defend. Because in the situations that test us, we draw the lines that matter.
If our line concedes that life is not worth-living because of disability, pain, or fear of loss of functioning, then we have lost the ability to draw any line that upholds the basic goodness of human life or existence at all.
The great, contemporary, Marxist-turned-Catholic, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explores the reality of human disability and dependence in his book Dependent Rational Animals. He notes that we are all interdependent beings, the pure independence is a myth of the Western philosophical tradition:
This dependence on particular others for protection and sustenance is most obvious in early childhood and in old age. But between these first and last stages our lives are characteristically marked by longer or shorter periods of injury, illness or other disablement and some among us are disabled our entire lives…Yet the history of Western moral philosophy suggests otherwise (1).
Classical western moral philosophy has centered on the independent agent who bestows charity on those “others” who so need it. What MacIntyre’s book argues for humans’ continual interdependence, though at varying levels, of our entire lives. The reality of disability does not diminish the suffering person to the point of losing the dignity to live.
This is not to say that some people do not require more care than others or that some people are not in more pain than others. Clearly, some among are more disabled and some hurt more. As hard as pain is to experience and to watch, we cannot declare someone else’s or our own lives unworthy because of it. If we do, as our laws already have, the only morally significant aspect of a worthy life warps into the subjective experience of pain, a standard which leaves us all in the crosshairs.