Is Euthanasia Ethical? 6 Common Criticisms, 6 Respectful Rebuttals

So you’re at a party, and someone says something ignorant . And while you know that they’re in the wrong, and that you could totally engage them and win if you were a bit more prepared, your words escape you. To make sure that doesn’t happen, we’ve compiled a series of handy reference guides with the most common arguments — and your counter-arguments — for all of the hot-button issues of the day. This week’s topic: How to argue for euthanasia.

Common Argument #1: Suicide is wrong, end of story. How much more needs to be said about this?

Your Response: It's incredibly important not to conflate suicide with euthanasia — doing so leaves space for cheap rhetorical demagoguery about euthanasia, and it misrepresents the nature of suicide. (And please, if you ever find yourself contemplating suicide, pick up the phone and contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

Here's the distinction — euthanasia is the act of ending a person's life, with consent, out of mercy for medical reasons. Somebody who's in excruciating pain from a terminal illness, for example, but still has the necessary clarity of mind to legally make such a decision. In some cases, people will lay out in their end-of-life plans to not be resuscitated if they're left physically and mentally incapacitated, which is basically the same decision, albeit in a less assured, more politically palatable form.

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Common Argument #2: It doesn't matter if a person wants to die, regardless of whether they're healthy or ill. It's still a violation of the sanctity of human life.

Your Response: This is the sort of argument that can easily become an impasse. I say people should have the right to die, you say that human life is sacred, and on we go. I'll only say that given a cursory knowledge of the various fatal illnesses common to the human condition, there seem to be a wide range of human experiences — terrible ones, of pain and struggle and grief and slow death — which to me at least are anything but sacred.

It all depends on what you consider the most real and urgent considerations when faced with a person who knows they aren't going to get better. What's truly more important — your discomfort at a person making the conscious choice to let go, or the free will of the person suffering?

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Common Argument #3: Have you ever lost a family member?

Your Response: Whether or not I've personally experienced a loved one's death is irrelevant in a conversation about what rights any person should have over their own life. Rest assured, we could swap anecdotes endlessly — basically everyone will face down seeing someone they love pass away someday, and with each person and each set of circumstances, different lessons will be learned, and different opinions will be formed.

My position is that a person in a clear, competent mental capacities should be granted the personal freedom and autonomy to end their life rather than endure a needless few days, weeks, or months of pain in a hospital or hospice someplace.

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Common Argument #4: Couldn't legal euthanasia put pressure on terminally ill patents to die? Like, if they knew their family couldn't afford their ongoing care?

Your Response: Theoretically yes, and that's definitely the sort of thing that should be considered and mitigated in any and all ways possible — maybe a fairer and less costly end-of-life health care, for example — in any society which accepts the right to die. But in effect, what you're making is a sort of slippery-slope argument — what if granting people what seems like a common-sense personal right result in darker, scarier implications?

While I don't agree with you about this, I sympathize, and I do think cultural norms can be very important. But if you show me a dying person who lacks the right to hasten the process, no matter how much they desire a dignified, less painful end, you're showing me a violation of deeply-held first principles about autonomy and consent. I'd rather start from the position of considering this a vital human right, and work forwards, confronting whatever legal and ethical issues may arise.

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Common Argument #5: That's very easy to say, but think of the risks compared to how the law is now.

Your Response: I think you're short-selling just how onerous prohibition on euthanasia is. Let's personalize it for a moment: If you were approaching the end of your life, and thanks to a terminal or chronic illness, you had a pretty good idea that a particularly nasty type of death was coming, what would you want?

You could definitely opt to stay the course and brave the end of your life regardless, and that's a decision I would absolutely never begrudge — because, once again, I'm saying this deserves to be a person's individual choice. If, however, you decided you wanted a more foreseeable, drug-induced slip into death instead of the possibly awful alternatives, I'd stand in full support as well.

To oppose someone having that right, however, is consigning another human being to a far worse death just because you think it's somehow better — effectively butting into the hospital room and insisting upon your own standards above the person who, you know, is actually going to die. I think this is an enormous moral stain on our society, and one which we don't seem to honestly confront.

Common Argument #6: Well, I can't in good conscience not speak out. I'm a devout [insert religion here], and taking your own life violates the tenets of my faith.

Your Response: This one is probably the easiest to rebuke, although given the all-encompassing nature of some people's faith, it might not be received as such — your religion is your Constitutional right, but nobody is obligated to care about your spiritual views. Imagine for a moment you're a Catholic, for example, and you're on your death bed, waiting to receive last rites. Would you be upset if I started a campaign against last rites as a violation of my deeply-held secular principles, and argued for outlawing it as a result?

Once again: To leap into hospital rooms and start giving orders to the terminally ill about the nature of their deaths strikes me as a gross violation of basic human decency. And frankly, it's even worse when based on unprovable, unscientific doctrines of faith.

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