If there should be a right to die, must there also be a duty to accept “assisted” death?

Margaret Wente, in a though provoking column in the Globe and Mail, which is well worth the read, raises the issue of a “slippery slope” between a “right to die” and, potentially, she thinks, to a “one size MUST fit all” approach 1297690259409_original… a sort of variant of the “zero tolerance” approach about which I have complained before, that could, potentially, lead towards a “duty” to accept “assisted dying.” “The trouble,” Ms Wente argues, “is that tolerance and compromise are going out of style – not only in the U.S., but increasingly in Canada, where activists for human rights of all kinds like to argue that every human right is a case of either/or. They have no time for pluralism, or accommodation, or compromise, or anyone who doesn’t see things exactly their way. And that’s not good – especially when it comes to life and death.” She worries that the moral standards of e.g. “faith based” hospitals might be ignored by social justice warriors who argue that all ‘rights’ must be universal and universally applied. She reports that she has been told by reliable sources told that there have already been discussions, in open fora, about when it might be appropriate to introduce the idea of medically assisted death, euthanasia, to those patients who would be considered good candidates.

Ms Wente is concerned with the impact that extending the right to die towards a “duty to die” and a concomitant “duty” to provide euthanasia might have on the remaining faith based institutions, and so am I, but I am also concerned about the larger matter of the “collision of rights.” In my opinion, and notwithstanding what Adams, Jefferson and their enlightened colleagues said, there are no natural or universal or inalienable rights, all rights, even those that I hold to be fundamental, are or can be, in a liber-democratic society, restricted in some ways in order to balance the rights of each individual with those of every other individual and with the communities in which they live.

My position is:

  • There ought to be a right to die. A sane, reasonable (which is related, somehow to intellectual and emotional maturity) person must have a right to take her or his own life; it must not be a crime; and, equally, it must not be a crime for another sane, reasonable person to assist them. But it is a nuanced ‘right,’ not a fundamental one;
  • Even our most fundamental rights ~ to life, liberty, property and privacy ~ have some, reasonable limitations. Other rights, including e.g. freedom of expression are limited, in law, by e.g. libel laws. The right to die is, similarly, going to be surrounded by many high fences to ensure that it is properly and reasonably exercised; and
  • We should only conscript soldiers in the most dire circumstances, we should never try to conscript e.g. doctors and nurses or “the butcher the baker and the candlestick maker,” for that matter, into positions which they may find unethical or even morally unconscionable.

downloadI expect that, eventually, our Supreme Court will push and prod our political leaders into balancing the right to die with the right to refuse to die and the right to refuse to hasten another’s death in any way. When, eventually, Madame Chief Justice McLachlin and her colleagues get that about right they might move on and acknowledge that none of our ‘rights’ are unlimited, none are 100% guaranteed, always and forever, and reasonable men and women may  and must balance their (limited) ‘rights’ against the (equally limited) ‘rights’ of others.

For would be Conservative leaders: I expect you to balance your conscience with the acceptable standards of the public’s will, as expressed by the courts, and make laws that are “tolerant” and that do offer room to “compromise” so that one person’s civil right to a “service” may not override another’s right to her or his conscience. I expect you to accept and respect the “rules” of our society as defined by parliament and adapted by the courts, even when they offend your, personal conscience. I expect you to understand that a national government must act for the greater good for the greater number, even when that means that individuals must compromise their personal positions. You, as politicians, like doctors and nurses, should not be “conscripted” by one or another faction of your party to act against your conscience,* but you must not not try to “conscript” me, or other Canadians, either.


* You are elected to bring, as Edmund Burke said, your “unbiassed opinion,” your “mature judgment,” and your “enlightened conscience,” into the work of Parliament. You need not make them subservient to anyone else’s opinion, judgment or conscience unless you serve in the cabinet, in which case you agree, before joining, that you will either maintain cabinet solidarity, on every single issue, or resign from cabinet in order to speak your mind.

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