In a recent Globe and Mail op-ed — perhaps published in the full knowledge that the Globe intended (within a few days) to publish an editorial which goes clean contrary to Somerville’s point of view — Margaret Somerville repeats her reasons “Why euthanasia and assisted suicide must remain legally prohibited“. They basically boil down to the view, repeated ad nauseam by the Vatican and its supporters, that respect for life demands an absolute prohibition of any decision regarding the termination of life from conception to what they call “natural” death. The belief is that if we do not control the entrances and exits of life with draconian absolutism and totalitarian prescription we will lose our respect for life. The repetition of this claim is tiresome. Of course, no one is suggesting for a moment that we should not take care that assisted dying not become a free for all in which innocent people who do not want to die are sent on their way regardless. But one such protection might reasonably be held to include permission for those in great pain, or suffering what they consider to be an intolerable quality of life, to end their lives if they competently wish to do so. And since it is much harder to kill oneself than many people believe, and since many of the options for killing oneself are horrific and barbarous (such as hanging, drowning, shooting oneself, or jumping from an extreme height), assistance for people to end their lives ought to be provided so that society can at once protect life (because all those expressing a wish to die may be helped to find meaning in their lives after all), and make the departure of those who feel that continuing in life will mean a net loss of goodness for lives already lived, not only more peaceable, but able to be carried out in the company of those they love and by whom they are loved in return.
Somerville’s basic mistake, and it is something she borrows mindlessly from her church, is a play on the ambiguity of the idea of dignity. The belief that human life has inherent dignity is a strange one, on the face of it, since the basis for ascriptions of dignity, even in the Christian tradition, lies in rationality and the ability of humans to make choices for themselves and thus to live morally. To say, of any entity, before it has this capacity, that dignity inheres in it, as in a foetus, or an embryo, is simply to misunderstand the idea of dignity. In Roman Catholic parlance today, the word ‘dignity’ often stands proxy for the word ‘sanctity’, and it should not need pointing out that these terms are not equivalent. Because of this ambiguity, which arises from the frequent conjunction of dignity and sanctity in Catholic moral theology, the aspect of dignity which consists in the ability to make decisions for oneself, and to carry them out, is simply lost sight of. The consequence is that Roman Catholic moral theology tends to downplay the importance of autonomy as well as human rights. This is evident wherever the Roman Catholic Church is in the ascendency; but it should not be permitted to claim the moral high ground on the basis of this bait and switch approach to the issue of assisted dying. For what they are saying is that no one should have the right, for what seem to them good reasons, to bring their lives to an end because of intolerable suffering or the expectation of it. This is a straight denial of human autonomy, and the right of people to determine how their lives will go.
This bait and switch is clearly in evidence in Somerville’s last paragraph:
Where we disagree in the euthanasia debate is what honouring respect for human life requires. Those who equate loss of independence with loss of dignity believe that what they perceive as a quality of life not worth living justifies euthanasia. Those who see all humans as having dignity just because they are human, believe that respect for life requires that we do not intentionally kill another human being or help them to kill themselves, which means that euthanasia and assisted suicide must remain legally prohibited.
Notice how the term ‘respect for human life’ acts as a bridge between the two senses of dignity. For when she says that those who wish to end their lives “equate loss of independence with loss of dignity” she is saying something that is not true. Those who wish to end their lives because of an intolerable quality of life do not equate loss of independence with loss of dignity (in the sense of autonomy); they equate loss of independence (and not only that, of course, because the kinds of loss of independence that arise here include intolerable pain, intolerable isolation from life, and from those things that once gave life value) with loss of dignity in the sense of a loss of the ability to participate in the human world as they once did, and who feel that that loss will, in the end, cause their lives far more harm, looked at as a whole, than would bringing their lives to an end before they have suffered that harm. But it is simply playing on the ambiguity of the word ‘dignity’ to make the claim that Somerville makes in this last paragraph. Respect for our autonomy is a vital part of what we consider our dignity, and those who are denied the remedy of assisted dying when only death can bring an end to their suffering, are being denied essential aspects of that dignity. Think about the importance of autonomy in other aspects of our lives: vocational choice, choice of a worldview and the right to live in accordance with it, the right to marry the person one loves (providing the love is reciprocated, of course!): to be coerced with respect to any of these choices would be considered, and rightly considered, an infringement of human rights, and a derogation from one’s dignity. Why should not one’s choices regarding the end of life, especially when that life is characterised by what the individual considers an intolerable quality of life, be respected in the same way?
As the editorial in yesterday’s Globe and Mail puts it:
Death is an integral part of life and, for most people, the concept of living a good life includes a peaceful, dignified end. But for some Canadians, suffering from unbearable pain and incurable illness, that is currently impossible. (“Quebec gets it right on the right to die“)
This is precisely the point, except that it might have been better had they begun with: “Since dying is an integral part of life …”; for it is dying, not death, that is a part of life. This is something that A.C. Grayling argued in the case of Diane Pretty (who suffered form ALS or motor neuron disease), when the High Court argued that since ending one’s life cannot be a benefit (since the beneficiary no longer exists), there cannot be a right to die. But dying is something that we do. It is a part of life, and how dying goes is indeed of great importance to all of us. Even Somerville, I daresay, would like to die peacefully, and with the least amount of pain and distress. And since dying is an integral part of life, the right to die should be accorded us, for dying (as Nietzsche said) at the right time, is something that may be thought to be of central importance to all of us. Besides all this, there is the fact that, by prohibiting the right of individuals to make their own decisions regarding their own deaths, the prohibiting authorities are effectively, as Montaigne so aptly said, for that period during which that prohibition lasts, enslaving us. In his “A Custom of the Isle of Cea”, Montaigne writes:
The fairest death [he writes] is the one that is most willed. Our lives depend on the will of others: our death depends on our own. In nothing whatever should we bow to our humour more than in this. Reputation has nothing to do with such an undertaking: to take it into account is madness. Living is slavery if the freedom to die is wanting. [Michael Screech Penguin translation of the complete essays, p. 393; my emphasis]
Here is where respect for life comes in, for no respect is shown for those who are forced to go on living when they find living intolerable. As Ronald Dworkin so rightly said:
Making someone die in a way that others approve, but he believes a horrifying contradiction of his life, is a devastating, odious form of tyranny. [Life's Dominion, 217]
The Vatican, with their faithful follower Margaret Somerville, will not shrink at mandating this devastating, odious form of tyranny. It is here that we should focus in our disagreement with religion, in the tendency of religion to absolutism and tyranny. I have just been reading David Kertzer’s new book The Pope and Mussolini, where the temptation to absolutism, tyranny and totalitarianism is displayed in all its tawdry splendour. We need above all things to break the strangle hold of religions over our lives and the lives of our societies. And as Rome goes about its business making self-congratulatory saints out of popes Wojtyła and Roncalli, we should recall that the first (Wojtyła) spent his papacy trying to put the Genie back into the bottle that the second (Roncalli) tried to set free during Vatican II, and recalling that we should remember that many places in the world are hell for women today because they have no control over reproductive decisions, decisions which the pope and his minions arrogate to themselves. They even killed a woman in Ireland recently — one who was not even a Roman Catholic — because of this totalitarian tendency. If no other aspect of religion is defeated, this is one that must be.