Assisted suicide only latest stop on a slippery slope

WCR Logo

WCR EDITORIAL

May 16, 2016

Forty years ago this fall, I was seeking a topic for my master's thesis in philosophy. My advisor, a renowned Catholic ethicist, said to me, "You should write something on euthanasia. It will come down the pipe in a few years."

His logic was brief, but impeccable: The inviolable value of human life had been violated with the legalization of abortion. Once human life has been made a relative value, it would be attacked on other fronts, euthanasia being the next.

It was an eye-opening project for a young guy. A fair amount had already been written on the topic even though assisted suicide and euthanasia were nowhere on the legislative landscape. My thesis was focused on the principle of double effect - in this case, whether there was any moral distinction between killing a person or letting them die.

Quite a few philosophers - non-Catholics, to be sure - had written that there was no real difference. Killing a person is morally equivalent to simply letting a dying person die. The result, after all, is the same. Morality for them is all about consequences.

For Catholic philosophers and moral theologians, however, a person defines him or herself through their intended actions. Deliberately kill yourself or another, and you define yourself as a killer. Caring for a dying person so they can die naturally and with minimal pain, in contrast, can be a compassionate act.

The same can be said about a whole country. Legalizing assisted suicide defines the nation as one which has only a conditional respect for human life.

Still, what stayed with me most was my advisor's prescience. Over the years, I have watched the issue of assisted suicide slowly rise to the surface until now its legalization is about to become a defining act of the Canadian nation. We are about to become a nation which enables the suicides of some who want to die at the same time as we deplore suicides on First Nations reserves.

There's another thing about philosophers. Some maintain that slippery slope arguments are a logical fallacy. They say it is logically incorrect to argue, for example, that if a country legalizes abortion, it will lead to legalizing assisted suicide.

Such philosophers are wrong. I have seen it with my own eyes - how the cheapening of the value of life of the unborn has led to the devaluation of the lives of the dying. There is a slippery slope, and it will not stop with assisted suicide. The process will soon slide over into active euthanasia as it has in other jurisdictions and then into eugenics - killing those deemed to be genetically deficient.

It will be a brave new world, except there will be nothing brave about it. Killing the weak and innocent are cowardly actions, which undermine the courage of those determined to exercise a virtue which is falling off the map - love of society's most vulnerable members.