Euthanasia in the countries where it is legal is supposed to be voluntary. And those who wish to introduce legalised euthanasia in this country stress that this would enable those who wish to end their lives to do so. Indeed, the whole argument for euthanasia, as far as I can see, is based on the simple claim to autonomy: the idea that it is my life and I can end it when I choose to do so.
There is a very good rejoinder to that argument, but let it stand for the moment. Many of us are happy with the idea that people must be allowed to act as they please when their actions do not harm others. This derives from the principle of assent, which is the foundational principle of any liberal society. No one is to be coerced, all are free to pursue their own ends, provided this does not impinge on the freedom of others. Of course, there are hugely important ramifications to all this, but that in essence is what consent is about.
So, everyone, and I really do mean everyone, should be deeply worried by the way Mrs Cobi Luck in the Netherlands has been killed by lethal injection after a court order to that effect, following a dispute between her family (who wanted her euthanised) and her nursing home carers (who didn’t). You can read the details of the case here. The argument in court centred on what Mrs Luck herself wanted: the family claimed she wanted to be killed, the nursing home claimed she did not want this. The lady herself was suffering from dementia and in no position to make her own wishes plain to others.
For me, one thing should be absolutely clear: if someone is demented, under no circumstances can they be killed by lethal injection, because they are not capable at that moment of making a deliberate and informed choice. As for the demented, so with children. No one under 18 should be euthanised. We don’t allow children to buy a packet of cigarettes. How can we allow them to choose death for themselves?
What this case indicates is, more that a frightening judicial activism that puts people to death by court order, but further, that there are powerful forces see euthanasia as a good thing, and that demented people would or should choose it if they were capable of choice. But, as they are not, we choose for them. For some people, such as Lady Warnock, there is nothing wrong with this at all. Indeed, as he holds, there may well be not just a right to die, but a duty to die.
What starts out as voluntary can end up by becoming compulsory, thanks to the tyranny of public opinion.
As for the rejoinder to the argument that “It is my life, and I can end it when I choose”, the answer is that it is not your life. There is no such thing as a human life in isolation. If Mrs Luck’s life had been her own and no one else’s business, no one would ever have argued that she ought to be killed, and no one would ever have tried to stop it.
Our lives are not our own, but belong to those about us as well.