05 January 2012

Assisted suicide does not exhibit a "slippery slope"

One argument used against permitting assisted suicide is that after it is made legal, its use will become more common over time.  Data discussed by a bioethics professor suggests that such is not the case:
In Switzerland, as well as in the US states of Oregon, Washington, and Montana, the law now permits physicians, on request, to supply a terminally ill patient with a prescription for a drug that will bring about a peaceful death. In The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, doctors have the additional option of responding to the patient’s request by giving the patient a lethal injection.

The panel examined reports from each of these jurisdictions, with the exception of Montana (where legalization of assistance in dying occurred only in 2009, and reliable data are not yet available). In The Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia accounted for 1.7% of all deaths in 2005 – exactly the same level as in 1990...

In Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act has been in effect for 13 years, the annual number of physician-assisted deaths has yet to reach 100 per year, and the annual total in Washington is even lower...

Surveys show that more than two-thirds of Canadians support legalization of voluntary euthanasia – a level that has held steady for several decades. So it is not surprising that the report received strong backing in the mainstream Canadian media. What is more puzzling is the cool response from the country’s political parties, none of which indicated a willingness to support law reform in this area.

There is a similar contrast between public opinion and political (in)action elsewhere, including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and several continental European countries. Why, when it comes to dying, do democratic institutions so often fail to translate what people want into legislation?

I suspect that, above all, mainstream politicians fear religious institutions that oppose voluntary euthanasia, even though individual believers often do not follow their religious leaders’ views.

The rest of the essay is at Project Syndicate, via The Dish.


  1. Could it be that there is so much money to be made keeping people alive, even against their will, that no one is willing to risk losing it?

  2. As someone who grew up with a parent disabled by a slow-acting terminal disease for 17 years (and paralyzed for 12 of those), I fully believe it's morally wrong to deny someone the option to die with dignity when they're ready.
    Maia: In her case, money was definitely what the doctors were after, given that modern medicine can do nothing for her particular disease but give expensive false hope.

  3. I think more likely it's because some parts of the media are against it. The Daily Mail, for example (the Hate Mail or Bile Duct as it's known here) has undue influence over the Tory party - not that the paper has any principled objection, just that it's in the business of selling papers, and to do that stirring up a campaign, real or imagined, is good.

  4. Well there are certainly religions that have doctrine forbidding suicide. I think the "slippery slope" argument is nearly always a cheap appeal to fear, no matter what the topic. I fully support our right to choose to die with some measure of comfort and dignity. I'm also for some strict regulation of the practice. In this corporatist society, I think most prescription drug advertising to be borderline if not fully unethical. I'd hate to see assisted suicide infomercials showing up on cable channels along with all the other crass medical and snake oil marketing we permit.

  5. I don't believe anyone should be able to purposely kill someone.

    But taking them off all of their treatments and giving them something that will mask the pain (or make them comatose) as they die is different.

  6. But of course this was never the argument. Paying doctors to kill depressed people is murder whether they kill one person per year or they kill thousands.


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