Rejecting euthanasia, respecting the human spirit

Margaret Somerville
Oct. 30, 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Recently, Jonathan Kay, John Moore and I participated in a panel on CBC's The National, discussing assisted suicide and euthanasia. Kay supported extreme individual autonomy: Whatever their reason, competent adults should have the right to euthanasia. Moore proposed some conditions, such as terminal illness, on exercising that right. I argued that we should reject euthanasia, in part, because it's dangerous for vulnerable people and society.

Subsequently, both Kay and Moore wrote articles for the Post supporting their views and decrying mine.

Kay characterized Canadian society as "post-religious." Pondering why such a society would oppose legalizing euthanasia, he writes: "But the remnants of religious belief play a role, too. Deep down, many of the atheists who sneer openly at Christ and communion harbour an unspoken belief in something resembling a human soul. And in fact, a lot of the nominally secular arguments against assisted suicide rely on the verbal trick of using airy-fairy words as stand-ins for religious superstitions. (Conservative anti-assisted-suicide scholar Margaret Somerville, for instance, speaks of 'a sense of the sacred' and 'a space for the human spirit.')"

Moore describes me as an "intellectual dandy" and, like Kay, attributes an anti-euthanasia stance to religion: "In the end, the manner of one's exit is a matter of individual freedom. I find it noxious that I should yield to the moral objections of others. Faith and philosophy may be wonderful guidelines as to how one might live a better life, but I refuse absolutely that they be edicts as to how one must live and die."

But are Kay and Moore correct that opposition to euthanasia is based principally on religious beliefs or does it come from something else, something innate to being human?

Leaving aside the fact that humans have a strong, innate instinct against killing other humans, I propose all of us, whether or not we are religious, need and can experience "a sense of the sacred" and "a space for the human spirit." Indeed, these experiences are fundamental to being human, of the essence of our humanness and distinguish us from other animals. This means humans deserve "special respect." So Moore's euthanizing his dog out of love and compassion is ethical, but doing the same to his mother would not have been, because his mother is a human being, not a dog.

Experiencing mystery involves sensing there's an immense unknown that we can intuit, to some extent, but not fully understand, and we must respect its integrity

If we are to maintain, and pass on to future generations, societies in which reasonable people would want to live, we must foster a sense of the "secular sacred" that everyone can accept whether or not they are religious and, if religious, no matter which tradition they follow. Euthanasia destroys any sense of there being a mystery at the heart of life and, therefore, that life is "secular sacred." Mystery must be distinguished from myth, in the sense of a fairy tale, an illusion, or an untrue story. Experiencing mystery involves sensing there's an immense unknown that we can intuit, to some extent, but not fully understand, and we must respect its integrity. Euthanasia - intentionally killing another person - unavoidably breaches the required respect. It treats us as expired products to be checked out of the supermarket of life, preferably, as one Australian politician put it, "as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible."

We must also respect the "human spirit," which probably has a genetic base, because we all share it whether or not we're religious. As I've written previously, it is "the intangible, immeasurable, ineffable reality all of us need to have access to find meaning in life and to make life worth living - a deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to all life, especially other people, to the world, the universe and the cosmos in which we live; the metaphysical - but not necessarily supernatural - reality which we need to experience to live fully human lives." Kay is right in perceiving he must reject a concept of the human spirit to validate the ethical acceptability of euthanasia.

By comparing Kay's, Moore's and my approaches to legalizing euthanasia, it's clear our disagreements about it stem from a clash of worldviews. I believe accepting euthanasia will seriously damage our sense of amazement, wonder and awe at both who we are and the universe we inhabit, and also grievously harm the world we leave to future generations. Kay and Moore either disagree or don't think that's important.