February 28, 2024


Occasionally an amateur ethicist like the editor of BioEdge discovers an article so cogent and consistent that it sheds more light than shelves of textbooks. Whether or not it is correct, or even sane, is quite another matter. Such is the case with "The body as unwarranted life support: a new perspective on euthanasia", in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, a British publication.

David Shaw, of the University of St Andrews, cuts the Gordian knot of the euthanasia debate. Teasing out the distinction between "letting die" and actively ending life has filled many volumes. Here is his solution: the patient is not his body; he is his mind. Since the body is merely the instrument of the mind, when it becomes an encumbrance, it can ethically be turned off, like any other machine. QED.

In fact, contends Dr Shaw, denying a patient’s request for voluntary active euthanasia or assisted suicide is wrong: "it is almost as if doctors are obeying the ‘wish’ of the patient’s body rather than the patient’s mind, as keeping bodies functioning is what doctors are habituated to. This attitude is understandable, but it is not ethical."

To the amateur ethicist, this appears to be a logical consequence of the mind/body distinction on which the textbooks expatiate in mind- numbing detail. The body is not an integral part of the person, but merely an instrument yoked to the mind, which is the real self ("fastened to a dying animal", as Yeats said). Deep waters, these, and the implications for medicine are immense and uncharted.