April 20, 2024

The atheist case against euthanasia

Is it only religious types who are fighting against assisted suicide? Not quite.

A number of intellectuals have recently chided ‘godly types’ for arguing against legalising euthanasia. Outspoken Australian philosopher and humanist Russell Blackford this week slammed Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby for what he saw as ‘disingenuous religious propaganda’ under the guise of secular argumentation. And last week we reported on the Lancet’s swipes at Baroness Ilora Finlay, former president of the British Medical Association, whom editor-in-chief Richard Horton accused of “fibbing for God”.

So is it only religious types who are fighting against assisted suicide?  Not quite.

In a recent edition of the Spectator magazine, atheist commentator Douglas Murray – lauded by the late Christopher Hitchens as “youthful, defiant and principled” – argues that the so-called slippery slope argument is reason enough for parliamentarians to stay their hand:

“Those who are not religious can still have many philosophical objections to euthanasia… The principal objection to euthanasia is a slippery-slope argument — and many people profess to disdain such arguments. Nevertheless, anyone doubting the slipperiness of this slope should consider the places where euthanasia is already legal.”

Murray quotes one of Oregon’s most senior doctors, Professor William Toffler, who recently declared the state’s euthanasia legislation a ‘disaster’ that has, among other things, led to ‘a profound shift in attitude toward medical care’ and transformed the relationship between doctors and patients.

Murray also refers to various examples from Holland, where “Dutch law now blurs any difference between physical and mental illness.”

Murray is not just an anomaly. Kevin Yuill, a liberal humanist historian who specializes in the history of the US civil rights movement, has written numerous articles defending a existing British law on euthanasia. Recently he described the openness of Western societies to assisted dying as symptomatic of ‘narcissistic survivalism’ – “the inability of an entire culture to see beyond the corners of itself, to understand the self’s place in history, or to believe in its ability rationally to control the future.”

Yuill discussed the case of Gill Pharaoh, a healthy, 75-year-old retired nurse, who took her life on July 21 at a Life-Circle suicide clinic in Switzerland.

“Pharaoh… was not ill, but wished to die. She noted in her final blog that she wanted ‘people to remember me as I now am – as a bit worn around the edges but still recognisably me!’…”

Yuill extends the argument further, saying that the push to make euthanasia legal in the UK is not just so that people can avail themselves of the procedure, but so that the government endorse the sentiment of those who are suffering.

“…The narcissist sees a world that does not feel their existential pain (after all, physical pain does not even feature in the top-five reasons why people in Oregon opt for assisted suicide) as the cause of that suffering…

“If this is not narcissism, then why are Pharaoh and other assisted-suicide advocates so vocal about their need, not just to slip away quietly, but to have their decision validated by the state? The drive behind the assisted-suicide lobby is the idea that the world must mould itself around the perceived needs of ‘afflicted’ individuals.”

Like Murray, Yuill is an avowed atheist. 

The atheist case against euthanasia
Xavier Symons
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assisted dying
bioethics discourse