The value of human life
It hasn’t met with much fanfare, but two weeks ago Maryan Street removed her assisted suicide/euthanasia bill from the private members ballot. Citing the difficulties of discussing such a delicate issue in an election year (which is when the debates in Parliament would occur if it was pulled in the near future), Street vowed to reinsert the bill once the election has passed, so we can expect to see it again in either late 2014 or 2015.
When bills like this come up, we’re often told by their proponents that their purpose is to ensure that people can have access to a “death with dignity.” The assumption being that there are certain conditions or experiences that may afflict the human person that should not and need not be borne: painful terminal cancer, a descent into dementia, the loss of all motor function, or intractable disability. In these situations, the assumption goes on, we should override our usual beliefs and feelings that human life is valuable and worthy of protection, and allow people either to kill themselves or to be killed by another. For these people, human life no longer has value, and thus their lives are no longer either in need of or worth of our protection.
This may all sound palatable for a few isolated cases we may individually know or have read about, but does it make good policy? What would it mean for parliament to legislate that there are some people’s lives that aren’t valuable and aren’t as worthy of protection as everyone else’s?
Currently, the law protects all human life from the moment of birth until natural death. Anyone who either knowingly and willingly, or even negligently or mistakenly, takes the life of another or causes the death of another will be legally held to account to some degree. The assumption in these laws—as they were developed and passed down from England centuries ago—is that all human life is valuable and that it is right and proper for the state to ensure that those who take a human life will be answerable to a court of law. Of course, the courts can decline to punish a person for taking a human life if the evidence indicates, for example, that the death was completely accidental. But still, the principle remains inviolate: there is no human life that is without value and is unworthy of protection.
When Maryan Street re-submits her assisted suicide/euthanasia bill to parliament, she’ll be asking our MPs to pass a law that undermines this principle. She’ll be asking that the state decree that certain classes of people—those with terminal illnesses and those with an irreversible physical or mental condition—lead lives that are no longer in need of the state’s protection, that these are lives that sit outside the general consensus that human life is valuable and worthy of protection. We should all be wary.