April 24, 2024

Is fear of being a burden a good reason for assisted suicide?

A British ethicist says No.

In Oregon, 48.9% of patients who ended their lives under the state’s assisted suicide act said that fear of being a burden was one of their reasons. We should be very worried by this, argues Charles Foster, a British medical ethicist, in the blog Practical Ethics.

Concern about being a burden should not be a criterion justifying assisted dying. That ‘being a burden’ is in the minds of so many patients at the end of life is a depressing index of the breakdown of familial obligations and expectations in the western world. It would have been unthinkable in most cultures and at most historical times. It is an artefact of an atomistic view of the self which is biological gibberish and sociological poison. We are not islands. We were all dependent as foetuses and children, and are dependent now on other road-users, pilots, doctors, genes, and the weather. No system of law or ethics that relies on a caricature of basic realities is likely to produce good results.

Foster goes on to argue that “The law should be framed in such a way as to encourage the attitudes in families and carers that make impossible the feeling ‘I’m a burden’.”

He points out that shuffling off the mortal coil for the sake of the family might seem commendably altruistic – a bit like Oates telling his comrades on Scott’s ill-starred expedition to the South Pole, “I am just going outside and may be some time”. But, says Foster, “This is a bad argument. It sets the distress of a few above the welfare of many, and above the ethical health of a society.”

He concludes with the thought that this might undermine the case for assisted suicide altogether:

And one might think, given the very high incidence of this reason in the reports of patients’ reasons for seeking assisted dying, and the possibility that it is a contributory factor in the minds of those patients who cite other primary reasons for seeking death, that this consideration is an argument against assisted dying per se.

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