The fight against assisted suicide has not been lost, says a Canadian-born liberal and atheist English academic who opposes medicalized killing.
Kevin Yuill, a history professor at the University of Sunderland and one of the most prominent voices against legalized assisted suicide in the United Kingdom, told The Catholic Register he doesn’t think the Supreme Court of Canada decision mandating legalization in 2015 will stand the test of time.
“In the future, assisted suicide will be viewed as an unfortunate departure, like the flirtation with racial ideas (as in Nazi ideology and eugenics) in the early 20th century,” Yuill wrote in an email.
In his frequent articles for the British press, Yuill has used the example of what’s happened in Canada to warn the English how legalizing assisted suicide leads to an erosion of rights.
“In the province of Ontario, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care announced that it would force doctors to either euthanize patients who wanted to die, or refer them to someone who would,” Yuill wrote for Spiked in July. “Three years ago, it was a crime for doctors to kill their patients in Canada. Now, doctors could lose their licence for refusing to participate in killing their patients.”
Yuill’s 2015 book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalization, stands as proof that opposing doctor-aided death isn’t a reactionary plot by religious zealots.
“One of the most frustrating aspects of this whole discussion is that those who are affiliated with religious institutions make excellent arguments against assisted suicide, but they can be dismissed with a wave of the hand as religious,” said Yuill in an email. “There are broad moral reasons why atheists like me oppose a change in the law.”
For the thoughtful atheist, there’s no contradiction between doubting God and affirming the sanctity of life, he said.
“(Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel) Kant provides a basis for secular morality. Suicide, he says, is not abominable because God has forbidden it. God has forbidden it because it is abominable,” said Yuill. “We have a concept of the sacrality of human life — of all human life — in our laws against taking the life of another.”
People have the same instinctive repugnance to murder if the victims are old, infirm and not likely to live many more years as if the victim is young and healthy. Murderer Elizabeth Wetlaufer doesn’t get a free pass because the people who died were in a nursing home.
“It is moral equality of every human life — the Kantian idea that human lives must never be used as a means to an end but are ends in and of themselves — that is undermined by legalizing assisted suicide,” said Yuill.
Assisted suicide proponents have succeeded since the 1970s largely on the basis of anecdotes and an absence of opposition, said Yuill.
“As soon as you get beyond the anecdotes and you expose their ‘everyone resisting this is a religious bigot imposing his will on everyone else’ argument, they have little else. I am supremely confident that, given the chance, we can win these arguments. Consequently, I have never refused a challenge to debate them.”
Yuill recently took his arguments to a medical conference in the Netherlands.
“I was impressed that they were open to argument and surprised that they had had little,” he said.
Yuill asked the pro-euthanasia crowd on what basis they would deny autonomy and the right to choose from brokenhearted 24-year-olds who feel they no longer want to live without the lover who spurned them.
“I also asked why doctors had to perform the task,” he said. “Why not allow competent adults access to deadly drugs they can self-administer? It struck me that they had never been asked these questions and it seemed to stop them in their tracks.”
When those who oppose assisted suicide retreat or fail to engage the debate they make it easy for pro-euthanasia arguments, said Yuill.
“Assisted suicide and euthanasia advocates push against an open door,” he said.
Yuill fears all the ways assisted suicide will erode our freedoms.
“It does not make society — or a man — freer to destroy the basis to his freedom,” Yuill said. “The exponents of assisted suicide threaten our freedoms rather than the other way around. We currently have the right to refuse treatment. By eliding the difference between refusing treatment and killing or being killed, assisted suicide undermines the basis of bodily autonomy. . . . We are being offered choices without responsibility, which renders the whole meaning of choice meaningless.”
Polls showing a popular embrace of capital punishment don’t change the morality or wisdom of state-sponsored killing, Yuill said.
“There is a dual aspect to suicide. There is a killer and a victim. We condemn the act of the killer even as we sympathize with the victim and his family. . . . From the perspective of the community, taking a life — no matter what value the killer puts on it — is always wrong. This is also the basis of opposing capital punishment.”