Passed in 2021, the Canadian assisted suicide law allows doctors to offer “treatment” to people with psychiatric problems starting next year. Since severe psychiatric disorders tend to cloud patients’ ability to reason, one wonders who benefits from this law. It will exclude people who are generally irascible, unproductive, and expensive from society. Perhaps they are encouraged to adhere to assisted suicide for the benefit of their relatives or even the country. The limits between voluntary and compulsory are perhaps no longer so clear.
The law is a logical consequence of the right to a dignified death claimed by many – that is, the right to a predetermined death and whose method will be chosen with the help of doctors and nurses. Originally, the right was granted to the disillusioned. But why should the disillusioned have the exclusivity of a good death, right? Either man has the right to kill himself or not; whether or not he is dying (and, in a way, we are all always dying) is irrelevant. If a man has the right to kill himself, there is nothing more human than giving him the opportunity to do so in comfort, surrounded by loved ones, with a quiet song and without all that dirt associated with “unassisted suicide”.
Many of those currently determined to leave this life are forced to travel to Switzerland, but this is expensive and creates an additional social divide between those who can and those who cannot afford assisted suicide . What does equality of rights mean if people cannot exercise their rights equally? The supposed equality loses its meaning. Therefore, not only should there be laws allowing assisted suicide in the way and at the time the person wants to die, but in the name of equality, it is the duty of the State to ensure that people have access to it through the social safety net.
The untenable argument, of course, has been used as one of the main objections to the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Not all objections make sense, but we have reason, at least in some jurisdictions, to believe that this one does. In 2017, a survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine announced (with some pride) that in the Netherlands 92% of people who underwent euthanasia had serious illnesses. The survey did not explain the circumstances of the remaining 8% of cases – and the editors evidently felt it was impolite to ask. The numbers were not low: the number of people without serious illness undergoing euthanasia was the same as the number of people murdered in the Netherlands in the last four or five years. The state, one might say, is complicit in more murders than all the criminals in the country combined.
Furthermore, serious illness is not the same as fatal illness. An illness can be serious but not fatal; it may or may not be bearable, but whether the disease is serious or fatal is just a technical question to be answered using a form. The easy way out will always be a temptation for people who might otherwise have endured illness. And, in times of economic hardship, these people may feel encouraged to undergo euthanasia. After all, our hospitals are full and in desperate need of beds to treat those that can be cured.
On the other side of the issue is the fact that everyone can easily imagine circumstances in which someone would rather die a death calm to face an illness. The principle of double effect, which says that doctors can prescribe drugs to alleviate suffering but also shorten the lives of the dying, has long prevailed. It is not the perfect solution to the dilemma, although there is no perfect solution.
Theodore Dalrymple is a contributor to the City Journal, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of several books.