The Royal Society of Canada’s Report on Euthanasia

For anyone who still believes that human beings have inherent dignity, the Royal Society of Canada’s recent report End-of-Life Decision Making makes for chilling reading. Published in mid-November by an “expert panel” of the prestigious academic body, the report calls for overturning Canada’s laws against assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. That position is noteworthy enough.

What is stunning is how radical the proposal is, and how readily the report’s euthanasia rationale would lead to killing those considered “not worth living” even without their consent.

ElderlyLady

The report’s euthanasia advocacy is breathtaking. It is not satisfied with legalization in so-called hard cases of terminal illness involving great physical suffering. Neither is it content to allow a broader list of medical cases - various serious disabilities and illnesses, terminal or not, where the suffering is great whether physical or emotional in nature. No, it brazenly calls for euthanasia and assisted suicide ON DEMAND, whenever someone decides their life is not worth living; one needs only to have been “informed” about one’s choice. Want a death pill? No problem. It’s your legal right! What if people want to kill themselves “for frivolous reasons,” the report asks.  “Our commitment to autonomy requires that we bite this theoretical bullet” is the cold reply (p. 51).  

Theoretical? Any de facto “go ahead and kill yourself” public policy would result in troubled people actually needlessly ending their lives. It would surely also undermine society’s suicide-prevention programs for hurting teens, First Nations people, etc.  For if anyone wants to kill themselves, it would be nobody’s business but theirs, would it not? That’s the callous path the report would put Canadian society on.

The report’s euthanasia advocacy is not unexpected. Despite the Society’s mandate to publish “balanced” studies on serious subjects, observers noted how its six-member panel of so-called experts” included four prominent academic supporters of legalized euthanasia yet no known  opponent. The die, then, was cast. (See “Royal Society’s ‘Expert Panel’ Stacked with Pro-Euthanasia Advocates,” LifeCanada Journal Jan.-Feb. 2010)

How did the panel arrive at its radical conclusions? It made three major misjudgments, all reflective of underlying bias.   

1) Dismissal of the dignity of human life as a guiding norm for public policy. The authors astutely took aim (pp. 51-59) at the real ethical bulwark in Canadian law against euthanasia: the notion of the inherent dignity of human life. Despite legalized abortion, this ethical principle remains well entrenched in Canadian law, as illustrated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1994 Rodriguez case. In upholding an assisted suicide ban the Court referred, for instance, to “the policy of the state that human life should not be depreciated by being taken.”
The report maintains that the dignity of life principle is no longer a valid norm for public policy on euthanasia. Why not? Essentially, because of lack of consensus over its meaning: both proponents and opponents of legalization rely on the concept of dignity (p. 59). The former claim that “death with dignity” requires euthanasia. The latter say killing the sick or disabled violates human dignity.

Admittedly, such disagreement exists. But that is no reason to throw the whole concept overboard! One side believes in the intrinsic dignity of life even amid suffering, the other believes in its extrinsic dignity, i.e. a suffering life can lose its dignity. Why doesn’t the panel ethically evaluate the two views? Its dismissal of human dignity as a valid societal norm is irrational. It’s a bit like saying: people disagree what justice means. Therefore, the notion of justice is no longer relevant for public policy. How absurd!

2) Erection of radical autonomy as THE guiding norm for public policy. The panel posits this superficial argument: (a) pro-euthanasia polls demonstrate a consensus among Canadians in favour of personal autonomy as a value; (b) it is reasonable that this value form the basis of public policy on euthanasia; (c)  therefore, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, which realize this value, should be legalized.

The argument has numerous flaws. (A) Ethics and public policy are not reducible to polling. What if the majority wants to destroy minority rights? (B) The polls cited are unreliable. They fail to show, as others have (Environics 2010, 2011), that Canadians are highly ambivalent and worried about voluntary euthanasia and, by implication, unfettered autonomy.  (C) The panel contradicts its own standard of ethical reasoning. It previously dismissed “dignity” as a norm because of social disagreement over its meaning. Here it acknowledges “there are many conceptions of autonomy” (p. 44). Yet it proceeds willy-nilly to adopt one particular meaning (radical autonomy over one’s body) that serves their pre-determined conclusion.  All this is not ethics but a ruse.

3.  Dismissal of slippery slope argument. The report acknowledges that slippery slope arguments about legalized voluntary euthanasia leading to vulnerable people being euthanized without consent are “ubiquitous” among academics (p. 64). Yet it gives short shrift to them.

Many such arguments are based on the 38 year Dutch experience with permissive euthanasia. Yet the report  finds no evidence of a slippery slope (p. 68), with its study of Holland (pp. 76-78) not even deliberating over widely reported abuses, e.g. the famous Remmelink report. It seems the authors are determined not to let facts interfere with their preconceived opinion.

The report’s argument for its radical proposals is deeply flawed and biased. What is also scary is how easily that same line of faulty reasoning would lead to something even more radical, opposed by 82% of Canadians (Environics, 2011): the killing the sick and disabled without their consent.
For if, as the report asserts (a) the inherent value of human life is not a valid norm of public policy; (b) ethics is reducible to polling, all it would take is a shift in public opinion to sanction a new consensus to extend euthanasia to those unable to decide that for themselves that their lives are not worth living: persons with mental disability, the elderly with dementia, newborns with handicaps, etc. One senses the slippery slope being greased.  

A biased panel has produced a biased report that advances a radical kill-me-on-demand ideology that would put tens of thousands of the most vulnerable Canadians at risk. One expects wisdom from “experts.” In this case we sure did not get it. All I got was a bad case of the chills.

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Peter Ryan, MA, STL has an advanced degree in ethics. His STL dissertation (1996) was on the Canadian debate over legalized euthanasia. He writes and speaks on end of life issues. He serves as the LifeCanada board member for New Brunswick.