November 11, 2007


Killer arguments against euthanasia: In exposing the euthanasia lobby’s disregard for equality before the law, and for free will itself, Neil M Gorsuch has written the most important book yet on the ‘right to die’. (Kevin Yuill, 10/26/07, Spiked)

[W]ith his book The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Neil M Gorsuch is clearly filling a gap in the debate about assisted suicide.

Gorsuch comes at the question from a legal perspective and is well qualified in legal philosophy. A former clerk to US Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, he was nominated by President George W Bush and confirmed by Congress last year as a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. The remit of this book is, as Gorsuch tells us, ‘to introduce and critically examine the primary legal and ethical arguments deployed by those who favour legalisation, and to set forth an argument for retaining existing law that few have stopped to consider’. Readers (like myself) who might not warm to the task of following the circuitous logic of American law courts would do well to persevere, for Gorsuch lucidly lays out key ethical and philosophical arguments on both sides.

Gorsuch begins by showing how the debate remains unfinished within the context of American law. He then provides an excellent chapter on the history of assisted suicide and suicide. Punching holes in the classical pretensions of some advocates, he notes Plato’s condemnation of suicide as akin to a soldier leaving his post. In Laws, Plato condemned suicide on the grounds that it ‘imposes [an] unjust judgment [of death] on [oneself] in a spirit of slothful and abject cowardice’.

An outstanding historical point – again, a useful counterpoint to the claim by supporters of assisted suicide that they are carrying on an Enlightenment tradition – is that the more lenient attitude towards suicide, away from the medieval tradition of burying the suicide at a crossroads with a stake through them, reflected the view that suicides were often the result of madness, rather than malfeasance. As Gorsuch rightly declares, ‘it is a large leap from that merciful fact to the conclusion that suicide had become normalised in law, let alone a matter of legal right’.

Most of the other chapters deal with the ethical and logical problems with arguments in favour of assisted suicide. Gorsuch reconstructs the arguments of advocates before effectively knocking them down. Willing participation of the victim does not render the act harmless or victimless. As Gorsuch shows, repeating arguments by John Stuart Mill, it takes nothing away from our ‘freedom’ to be prevented from duelling, selling one’s organs, or selling oneself into slavery. There are some activities prevented by a liberal or even libertarian society for the good of all. It would be perverse to say that the prevention of any of theses activities – or suicide – destroys the basis to our freedom.

Gorsuch spends altogether too much time on the canard of autonomy. It needs to be said that all are free to commit suicide, a reflection upon the impracticality of making suicide illegal. What is being requested today, however, is the right to kill those we judge (and who agree with our judgement) to be living worthless lives.

As Gorsuch notes, few argue that all must have the right to be killed if they cannot kill themselves. This leads pro-assisted suicide commentators to draw lines between those with terminal illnesses and others. One of Gorsuch’s stronger and more original arguments shows that delineation between the terminally-ill and everyone else (the basis for Oregon’s definition between those who qualify for assisted suicide and those who do not) erodes equality. To be treated as equals before the law can bear no demarcations between subjects; we cannot set down simple criteria for which lives are worth living and which are not. The arbitrariness of a line based on physical health matches the arbitrariness of lines between, say, Jews and Gentiles. How can one judge the worth of an individual’s life in such random and simple terms?

Once you've determined that lives are of unequal value, what's left but arbitrary line drawing?

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 11, 2007 6:00 AM

And where one draws the line, and then those who are on the 'bad' side of the line but chose not to die?

Should they be 'assisted' in making the 'correct' decision?

Posted by: Mikey at November 11, 2007 1:36 PM