In 2012, there was a state referendum in Massachusetts trying to legalize assisted suicide and Ted Kennedy’s widow, the Boston Globe editorial page and Ezekiel Emmanuel who was one of President Obama’s top advisors on healthcare all came out against this initiative.
Ezekiel Emmanuel has a very important and potent way of framing the problem. He said that, basically, what you’re doing if you legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia is this: you’re going to benefit a very small slice of the wealthiest and most able people to take their lives when they want to, at the expense of — and at the risk of — an entire sea of vulnerable people who are going to be coerced into euthanasia, who are going to be euthanized “in their best interests” when they can’t speak for themselves, or when they don’t have someone who’s lobbying for them trying to advocate for them.
So I’d say that euthanasia and assisted suicide is one of the gravest threats we’re facing right now. There’s a renewed political effort to legalize and promote it in the United States and in other parts of the West as well, and Europe.
Where is the push coming from?
It’s a good question…I don’t quite understand what motivates it. Honestly, there’s the principle of autonomy: the idea of self-determination and the ability to choose the manner of one’s death is normative grounding of this movement. Although originally, historically, the movement of this push for assisted suicide and euthanasia had a very eugenic foundation. It actually wasn’t about autonomy and freedom. It was about “putting down” undesirable members of the human family. Basically, it was about culling the herd, improving the race, and taking people whose quality of life didn’t rise to the appropriate level and dispatching them.
In fact, in the 1920’s there where these two social scientists — Hoche and Binding — who were the architects of what became the Nazi eugenic movement, even they themselves weren’t Nazis, which is something important to remember.
They were from Germany. They were the architects of Hitler’s eugenic program. But again, they didn’t frame it in the kind of race-based ideology that the Nazi movement embraced, but rather a kind of eugenic — a kind of nihilistic paternalism. The phrase they used was: “life unworthy of life." It was the title of their book. And the idea was there are certain people whose living conditions are so diminished because of disability or illness or age, that there’s no warrant to continue their life, and in fact you should take affirmative steps to end their life.
Leon Kass, my former boss and mentor on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics gave an extraordinary lecture at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. explaining how it wasn’t Nazi ideology that led to the Nazi medicine and the horrible crimes against humanity by Nazi doctors. It was this kind of eugenic impulse that pre-dated that, that Hoche and Binding were responsible for.
[So] that was the first bookend lecture of the conference. In terms of the challenges we face, Gil Meilaender’s talk was focused on assisted reproductive technology and the obvious natural human impulse to have children, especially those couples that are infertile seeking technological assistance in circumventing their infertility.
What are the dangers of this?
Now we have all sorts of permutations of the assisted reproductive technology’s practice, where you have the so-called “three parent embryos” from mitochondrial transfer, you have surrogacy. And as we see stem-cell research proceed, along with other genomic innovations we’ll see the possibility of creating sperm and egg from skin cells of a human being.