Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

We Must Anticipate the Real Dangers of Assisted Suicide

We Must Anticipate the Real Dangers of Assisted Suicide

Earlier this week a friend shared an article with me titled We Can’t Afford a Taboo on Assisted Dying. What gave rise to its publication is the Scottish parliament’s present work on a bill to to legalise assisted suicide, which they’re calling “assisted dying”—because, you know, it’s got a better ring to it. The author of the article, Matthew Parris, deserves credit for his stated intent: addressing the strongest argument against assisted suicide. This aim is commendable; not to mention sorely lacking in too much public discourse today.

Below I will consider his argument that assisted suicide can be a selfless and gracious end, especially in light of the drain that old people can be on an economy.  I’ll then argue that what Parris is describing is little more than utilitarianism, something he seems to realise but refuses to admit has dangerous potential for all sorts of murderous distortions. I also examine Parris’ reiterated but—in my opinion—naive emphasis on consent, when he’s simultaneously calling for people to be evaluated by their economic contributions or outputs. Finally, I lean into the charge some readers will level against this article: the slippery slope fallacy.

Parris: We Need a Shift in Thinking Around Suicide

First, let’s get our bearings with the article making a case for assisted dying. Parris writes, “Let’s acknowledge and confront the strongest argument against assisted dying. As (objectors say) the practice spreads, social and cultural pressure will grow on the terminally ill to hasten their own deaths so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others or themselves. I believe this will indeed come to pass.” Parris goes on to write that he would welcome this monumental shift in morality.

Very simply then, Parris sets out to reason against the idea that normalising assisted suicide—ridding ourselves of the taboo—will result in it becoming more readily considered a live option among the elderly and dying; among those “afflicted by intolerable misery, indignity or suffering…Discussion will become more open,” writes Parris. “It will become common practice to pose this question without embarrassment, and to weigh the answer up.”

Another paragraph in the article provides a series of questions that normalising assisted suicide would free us up to ask: “how much longer we can justify the struggle. Is life still giving us more pleasure than pain? How much is all this costing relatives and the health service? How much of a burden are we placing on those who love us? How much of a burden are we placing upon ourselves?”

Parris’ case also turns largely on economic factors, for the West along with a few other countries find themselves with a vast and aging population. Many of these people place a significant burden on both health systems and softer support structures, such as family. With age expectancy ever on the rise, “A proportionately ever-smaller working population carries an ever-larger cohort of elderly and retired citizens, supported by state pensions and advances in medical science that sustain us into ever-longer retirements.” The solution? Assisted suicide.

What Could Go Wrong?

Commendably Parris doesn’t shy away from the cold brutality of his position. In fact, he writes tackles it head-on. “I don’t apologise for the reductivist tone in which this column treats human beings as units—in deficit or surplus to the collective. For a society as much as for an individual, self-preservation must shine a harsh beam on to the balance between input and output.” So we’re numbers to be added and subtracted, figures in a cosmic equation or national balance sheet. And assisted suicide is a way for us to keep ourselves from putting others in the negative.

Unsurprisingly Parris steers clear of one word which just about perfectly sums up his position and argument: utilitarianism. Whatever his reasons for omitting that word—likely its historic connection with genocide—it could’ve stood in for the title of his article, as well as at numerous points throughout. After all, Parris believes that: in some circumstances, continuing to live is “selfish”; the unproductive elderly are an expensive burden on economies; and the future will be determined by reevaluating the worth of old age and reducing individuals to the contributions they make to the collective. What could go wrong?

Utilitarianism Usually Gives More Than It Promises

Though I may have only alluded to it now, let me state explicitly that I don’t believe Parris does actually address the strongest argument against assisted suicide. He’s convinced that the concerns of objectors centre on individuals choosing a burdensome and suffering-laden longevity over death. Put another way, he seems to think that those objecting to assisted suicide are worried that society will deem life less precious. But this isn’t the thick end of the wedge that most fear. Ironically, Parris himself hints at the darker side—the real thick end—his utilitarianism could lead to when he refers to our “sense of entitlement.” Entitled to what, you might ask? To live.

Already, and perhaps unwittingly, Parris sketches a troubling trajectory. While we like to think that we’re better than every generation to have come before us—more morally upstanding and virtuous—we’re fools if don’t consider the very real ominous possibility for this utilitarianism to veer into more murderous iterations. Even the way that Parris speaks hints at this.

I mean, should we ever chastise someone for feeling entitled to life? Can we call the terminally ill person who declines assisted suicide selfish? Again, are we ignorant of the devastating historical witness to moments and movements—marching in lockstep—that measured human life by their outputs? We should be worried when one sector of society deems another worthless, owing to their burden on the economy.

If Parris miraculously stumbled onto Rekindle he would no doubt accuse me of omitting one important caveat he makes concerning assisted suicide: consent, that glorious lodestar of 21st century ethics and morality. For quite carefully throughout his article he insists on choice, even if he sees no issue with it being a coerced one. But how do we account for consent in cases of senility or dementia? What choice can someone make when they’re conscious but non-communicative? If we’re honest, commonplace instances such as these would be determined by others. This is the trajectory. This is what such a bill would create room for.

Worse still, one could extend Parris’ metrics to other unproductive, costly, and burdensome groups of society: the permanently unemployed or wilfully homeless, the critically disabled and mentally handicapped, even people with crippling mental health issues. Again, what voice do these sorts of people have when their conditions and ailments render them incapacitated, temporarily or indefinitely? Opening the door a crack for consenting assisted suicide is to open it dangerously wide for other vulnerable groups.

“She’ll Be Able to Have You Put to Sleep”

I realise that some of what I’ve written here could be labelled an unpersuasive slippery slope argument. This I concede. Though I’d hasten to add that history does suggest the deliberate cheapening of human life in one area tends towards doing likewise in others. And that point is well illustrated by Sheriff Bell in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. So I’ll give him the last word.

Bell finds himself sat next to a politically minded woman, critical of what she considers an antiquated morality (i.e. “the right wing”). The conversation doesn’t follow a straight line until she “finally told me, said: I dont like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I dont think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it going I dont have much doubt but what she’ll be able to have an abortion. I’m going to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she’ll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

comments powered by Disqus