What does it mean by being “mature” as a society?
It is the word used by Madame Véronique Hivon, the MNA from the Québec provincial legislature. She spearheaded the passing of Bill 52, which legalised euthanasia in this Canadian province last week. She suggested that the citizens in the province of Québec are mature enough to discuss sensitive matters such as this. A similar issue (physician-assisted suicide) has already been discussed on our blog, and it is not my intention to repeat what has already been said. Rather, I would like to (no puns intended) take a stab at the mentality of “mature”.
By mature, I assume that we mean a kind of coming of age. We did not know before, but now we know better. We are better informed, and we are supposedly better equipped to make good decisions. This is necessarily linked to a sense of progression, that we are moving forward as a society. These are changes for the better.
But changes do not automatically equate to better. For example, take the case of evolution: Random changes in our genes can either be positive, neutral, or negative. It is the positive ones that slowly but surely contribute to the process which we call evolution. To put this back into context, the key question is whether the change that we are making by the passing of Bill 52 is a positive or negative one. Then we can judge whether it is a sign of our maturing or not.
Essentially, it boils down to the question of personal autonomy: Can I make my own decisions, realize my own dreams, and decide how my story is going to end? The answer is yes, for better and for worse. Note that the question is “Can I”, not “Should I”, for that would be another question altogether. We hope that everyone makes the right decisions, and we can certainly try our best to help others to do the same. But we have no control over the wrong decisions. If someone ultimately decides to take his own life, there is nothing we can do about that. It is also the sole responsibility of the person who commits suicide, if we are to only consider the action in itself.
Euthanasia is different, because the action in itself inevitably involves another: the doctor. At issue is that it now goes beyond autonomy of self; it is no longer just about me. Instead, another person's self-autonomy is at stake. The question here is rightfully about conscience: a matter of right and wrong. If the patient feels that euthanasia is right, but not the doctor, can one's self-autonomy override another's? We don't have to agree on everything, but can I force you to do something that you believe is wrong? This hardly amounts to a sign of maturity and progression in our society.
Furthermore, the reversed scenario is also in play: the individual pressured by society. Pressures can come from medical professionals, from family members, or from the general sentiment. It is the spectre of a kind of subconscious discrimination against certain groups, including the elderly, the mentally ill, and the mentally-handicapped. We often cry foul against discrimination, and rightly so. But does this paint a picture of a mature and progressive society?
Madame Hivon assured us that Bill-52 is watertight enough to not allow this to happen, but we have already seen that this cannot be dismissed as a fear-mongering slippery slope argument, because the slippery slope, it turns out, has been real in Belgium. We are no longer dealing with hypothetical thought-experiments, but real-life data. Those who are vulnerable will be pressured into this option, and the societal sentiment does change to elevate this pressure. Does this further our goal, for both the religious and the secular, of promoting the fullness of human life?
My position is clear: euthanasia amounts to a change for the worse, because of the infringement on self-autonomy, the conscience of practitioners, and discrimination against the weak and the marginalised. When we consider euthanasia from this angle, it is no longer about self-determination and freedom; it is a matter of social injustice. If we wish to call ourselves mature citizens in a progressive society, it would do us well to reflect on how we can act more compassionately and justly in a holistic way. If legalising euthanasia actually dehumanises us, then what is the more just, humane, life-fulfilling way to go? This is a huge question, and I do not claim to have the answer to it. I do think that a good starting point would be to consider human dignity beyond the question of self-determination and perfection according to our own image.