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Tactics to Promote Euthanasia

5/20/2006 - 6:30 AM PST

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Interview With Dr. Margaret Somerville of Montreal

MONTREAL, MAY 20, 2006 (Zenit) - In the battle for the legalization of euthanasia, two tactics used by proponents are redefinition and confusion -- and these point to a larger societal issue, says a Catholic pharmacist-ethicist-lawyer.

Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal, spoke at the recent annual Seminar on Bioethics sponsored by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family. The seminar focused on euthanasia and end-of-life issues.

In this interview with us, she speaks on the ethical issues at hand and the wider social-cultural implications.

Q: Why is there such pressure to redefine euthanasia, and what would such a new definition entail?

Somerville: Redefinition is a particular strategy to promote euthanasia. It confuses euthanasia with other medical interventions that are acceptable, such as consenting to withdrawal of life-support treatment.

The pro-euthanasia advocates are using the term "physician-assisted death" -- we can all agree we want physicians to care for us when we're dying -- and saying that physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are just different modes of all such treatment. The common "neutral" phrase is euthanasia's just a "last act of good palliative care" which sounds fine, and many people are buying it as a viable option.

In fact, those who argue for euthanasia are proposing to make a continuum of all end-of-life interventions, and arguing they are all of the same kind, just different in degree. Thus to be consistent we must either accept all of them or reject all of them. No one wants to do the latter -- it could mean not having access to necessary pain relief -- so the only option is to choose to accept everything.

The people who take the other side of the debate state that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are different in kind, not degree, from other end-of-life measures.

As to why there are these pressures, at one level it is personal belief in rights to self-determination, a need for control, a reaction after having seen a terrible death, fear of many things, terror management and so on.

Q: What is the implication of the proposed legalization of euthanasia on the greater society?

Somerville: At a more general societal level it is an important battle. In these culture wars we are experiencing, there is a battle about the nature of the societal cultural paradigm, the worldview that should govern us in the future, which new values we should adopt and which older values we should reaffirm as part of it.

There are, I propose, three competing possibilities for this new worldview, each of which has a very different relationship to the new science.

The first is the ''pure science'' view, which takes a position that science does or will be able to explain everything, including those characteristics such as altruism and morality, that we regard as distinguishing us from other animals and most clearly identifying us as human.

It seeks meaning in human life mainly or only through science and, likewise, seeks to exercise control through this. There is no recognized space for the spirit. It supports the view that one's own death is a purely personal matter involving only individual values and preferences.

In contrast, the second view, the ''pure mystery'' view, often decries science or is expressly anti-scientific. This view adopts an intense sanctity-of-life stance, which can be compared to respect or reverence for life, and most importantly, to respect or reverence for death.

For instance, many people who hold this view believe that all medical treatment must be continued until no vestige of life remains. These same people could also have difficulties with providing necessary pain-relief treatment that might shorten life.

The ''science-spirit'' view, the third view, seeks a structure to hold both science and the human spirit. For some people this view is expressed through religion, but it can be, and possibly for most persons is, held independently of being religious at least in a traditional sense.

It recognizes that human life consists of more than its biological component, wondrous as this is. This worldview includes a sense of a space for the human spirit and of the secular-sacred.

It recognizes that human life consists of more than its biological component, wondrous as this is. This worldview includes a sense of a space for the human spirit and of the secular-sacred. Most importantly, it's a bridge between all people who care about being moral and ethical whether or not they religious.

This view experiences our new science as eliciting wonder at both what we know, and, as a result of this, what we now know that we ...

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