Most proponents of physician assisted suicide argue that the practice should be legalized in order to respect individual autonomy when it comes to end of life decision making, but that such laws should also safeguard against vulnerable individuals, such as those with suicidal tendencies, that may be at increased risk. As bioethicist Margaret Somerville astutely notes in an op-ed in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, such reasoning is shortsighted because it fails to recognize that all members of the human family are vulnerable parties.
Vulnerability is linked to dependence on others. We are all interdependent, which means we are all vulnerable. This is not necessarily bad, as we might at first assume when we hear the word “vulnerable.”
For example, researchers in psychology have found that recognition of such dependence is a necessary condition for experiencing gratitude. We recognize that we need the other person and are grateful to him or her for fulfilling our need, which can be distinguished from being grateful for whatever it is that they have given to us.
The privilege that autonomy has received in physician assisted suicide debates—as well as in other areas of medical ethics—has come at the expense of recognizing other concerns, namely vulnerability and care for the common good. In elevating autonomy, we lose a sense of our shared connections and interdependence that we all have as members in society—and as a result, are all responsible for sharing in and protecting together.
Physician assisted suicide, wherever it is practiced, contributes to this weakening of familial and social ties and is therefore incompatible with any legal system that aims to promote the common good. And as we already know, it’s incompatible with a medical profession that is buttressed on the idea of doing no harm. Any way you look at it, it’s a destructive and deadly practice that should never be given the protection of law.