A former chair of the Danish Council of Ethics has published a broadside on legalised euthanasia in The BMJ. Ole Hartling, a doctor, author and co-author of several books, was a member of the Council between 2000 and 2007 and its chair for five years. During that time, the Council carried on extensive debates on end-of-life issues. In 2006 the Council “disrecommended” euthanasia.
His focus in The BMJ is on the illusion of autonomy. Euthanasia is often described as the ultimate expression of autonomy but Hartling is deeply sceptical. He recently published a book (in English) on the topic: Euthanasia and the Ethics of a Doctor’s Decisions: An Argument Against Assisted Dying, published by Bloomsbury. He stresses in this book that he does not rely upon “sanctity of life” arguments. “These lines of thought are metaphysical and easily become dogmatic and hence unconvincing,” he writes. His arguments are secular and aim to show that legalisation is simply untenable.
In his essay in The BMJ, he writes:
Decisions about your own death are not made in normal day-to-day contexts. The wish to die arises against a backdrop: of desperation, a feeling of hopelessness, possibly a feeling of being superfluous. Otherwise, the wish would not be there. Thus, it is under these circumstances that the right to self-determination is exercised and the decision is made. Such a situation is a fragile basis for autonomy and an even more fragile basis for decision making. The choice regarding your own death is therefore completely different from most other choices usually associated with the concept of autonomy.
The essay is thought-provoking and well-worth reading.
Michael Cook is the editor of Bioedge and his article is published with permission