Canadian laws and medical ethics prohibit a doctor from directly causing the death of a patient, or from helping the patient to commit suicide. But philosophy professor Wayne Sumner believes those ethical standards need rethinking and the laws need to be changed.
“If you face intolerable end-of-life suffering that can’t be dealt with any other way, and you want a doctor to administer a lethal injection, and the doctor is willing, I don’t think the state has any right to block that,” he says.
Sumner, 69, is writing a book on what he refers to as “assisted death,” which is due out from Oxford University Press next year. He says he became interested in the subject a few years ago while teaching an undergraduate bioethics course. “Probably it also has something to do with getting closer to the end and wondering how that will go,” he says.
Sumner likely isn’t the only one thinking about the ethics of assisted death. With the oldest baby boomers approaching 65, more will face their own mortality in the not-distant future. As they do, Sumner thinks they will pressure the government to change the laws. “They’ve been used to running their own lives. I think a lot of them will want some degree of control over the last days of their lives as well,” he says.
In his book, Sumner will argue for liberalizing laws governing medically assisted death. Generally, he says, it is wrong to kill someone, because it deprives that person of something of value. When the life being lived is no longer of value, but a source of extreme suffering, then helping someone end it, or ending it through euthanasia, is not unethical. Although many of the decisions would be difficult, Sumner says doctors already withhold treatment from children born with severe handicaps and from “brain dead” patients.
The current legal situation is ethically incoherent, he notes. Under some circumstances doctors are allowed to withdraw life support by turning off a respirator, for example. They can also hasten death by providing pain relief drugs, but only as long as hastening death isn’t the effect that’s intended. Sumner believes the laws should clarify when and how a doctor can assist a patient in dying.
Some argue that allowing assisted death at all leads to a slippery slope. McGill University law professor and ethicist Margaret Somerville writes that ending the prohibition against intentional killing would cause societal harm: “To legalize euthanasia would damage important societal values and symbols that uphold respect for human life.” But Sumner says that the same objection was made to legalizing abortion, and yet we continue to respect life. He points out, for instance, that the murder rate continues to drop.
“Legalizing assisted death responds to a real and immediate need on the part of those who are experiencing needless suffering at the end of life and it is simply cruel to deny them this relief on the basis of nothing more than vague speculation,” Sumner says.