Sunday, September 19, 2004

Should euthanasia sometimes be mandatory?
Conservatives typically abhor all euthanasia. I suspect that's true about the author of this article, but whether or not it is, the author certainly bemoans the slippery slope that leads from the acceptance of some forms of euthanasia to the acceptance of euthanizing children, even without their parents consent. I, on the other hand, am happy falling down that slope. In fact, I want to make an argument that euthanasia should sometimes be mandatory. This argument is only addressed to those people who honestly feel that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable; all others are encouraged to stop reading now.

So if you're still with me, you agree that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable. Presumably it is acceptable when someone who is dying and suffering but still of sound mind repeatedly begs to be killed. But what if the person is dying and suffering but is unable to express himself? I feel that this person should be "euthanized", whether or not his family consents, and whether or not he has left a "living will" to the contrary. More generally, here is my proposal.

The State must euthanize every person who, in the best opinion of medical experts, will never be able to express a desire not to be euthanized.

To put it another way, all you have to do to avoid being euthanized is to say "no thank you", or to have medical experts assert that it's possible you might be able to say "no thank you" at some point in the future. Of course, the "opinion of medical experts" will be taken by a suitable board of medical professionals that has been established for precisely this purpose. There are other situations where euthanasia should be allowed, but I'm only speaking here of conditions where it should be mandatory.

There are two types of errors that might be made here. Let us call the Type A error the case where we euthanize someone we shouldn't, and the Type B error where we fail to euthanize someone we should. If we weren't afraid of Type A errors we would euthanize everyone, so I assume we are all afraid of Type A errors. If we weren't afraid of Type B errors, then we would euthanize no one. Since you are still reading this, I know you are afraid of Type B errors, as am I. The worst kind of Type B error is where the person is suffering and conscious and wants to die, but can't express it; he may go on suffering like that for years, if we let him. I've been told by anaesthesiologists that even unconscious people can experience pain. The best case of Type B error (if you agree with my proposal) is where the person is so dead-like that nothing resembling pain or consciousness can be experienced; I suppose we could weaken the proposal to let such people live, but I won't consider that for now. The worst kind of Type A error is where the person is in no pain, the doctors are wrong, and the person wakes up in the morning as good as new.

For myself, I'm afraid of a Type A error no more than I am afraid of any other form of death. In fact, I am a lot less afraid, since Type A errors will be such a negligible cause of death that it's silly to worry about them. I am very much afraid, however, of a Type B error. There are probably about a million of these in the United States right now. I have seen loved ones become them, and there is a very high likelihood that I will become one as well. If we regard a Type B error as a catastrophe, then we should certainly be willing to accept Type A errors.

But what if a family member wants to keep alive a person who would be killed under my proposal? The article asks, "... since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children killed?" But one can also ask, "Since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children suffer arbitrarily much?"

But what if a person establishes a "living will" asserting that he should under no conditions be euthanized? We can more generally ask the question: to what extent should a person be able to contract to give away future rights? Should I be able to give you the right to torture me? There are even limitations in our society on the contractual validity of certain kinds of prenuptial agreements. So I have absolutely no problem with limiting a person's right to contract to receive arbitrary suffering in the future.

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