August 7, 2022

Does the slippery slope to euthanasia make sense?

Two words guaranteed to spark derision on a blog are Slippery and Slope. They are dismissed with either a smirk as a hoary old chesnut, scaremongering or religious sophistry. However, the slippery slope, the notion that small steps today will inevitably lead to bad policies later on, still has a lot of life in it – at least judging from the number of articles in learned journals which keep refuting it.

Two words guaranteed to spark derision on a blog are Slippery and Slope. They are dismissed with either a smirk as a hoary old chesnut, scaremongering or religious sophistry. However, the slippery slope, the notion that small steps today will inevitably lead to bad policies later on, still has a lot of life in it – at least judging from the number of articles in learned journals which keep refuting it.

In the latest issue of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, British bioethicist David Albert Jones makes a vigorous defence of a famous statement of the slippery slope from voluntary active euthanasia (VAE) to nonvoluntary active euthanasia (NVAE) made by Georgetown University scholar John Keown in 2002. Keown’s position is that the slippery slope is logical one which doesn’t require empirical support. If death is a benefit, it will be regarded as inconsistent to deny it to people just because they cannot request it.

Dr Jones’s article is well worth reading – here are a couple of paragraphs summarising the argument:

The validity of this logical slippery slope argument does not, of course, decide the issue of whether it is right or wise to legalize voluntary euthanasia. Faced with the valid conclusion that VAE implies NVAE someone has two options: either to accept both together or to reject both together…

…an argument is not like a bus where you can get off at any stop you like; rather, once you have accepted the premises you have to follow it to the end of the line. If voluntary euthanasia were accepted as a legitimate form of medical assistance in dying, then it would also be acceptable for noncompetent patients. Keown’s argument has indeed “raised the stakes in the euthanasia debate”. An advocate of legalizing VAE either must bite the bullet and also accept NVAE or must concede that if NVAE is regarded as too dangerous or unpalatable, then this is a valid and cogent reason for rejecting VAE as well.

Michael Cook
bioethics
euthanasia
slippery slope