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Conservatives’ Collectivist Case against Assisted Suicide

Doctor with PatientA person with a terminal illness or the like has a moral right to decide whether to keep living or to take his own life to end his suffering. He properly makes such a decision with respect to the full scope of his knowledge and values. Of course, he may discuss the matter with loved ones or other people whose views he cares to take into consideration. But the choice is his. No one else morally may make that choice for him.

But many conservatives feel they have a right to impose their will on an individual facing such a choice—and to use government to enforce their will. Sometimes they invoke “God” to rationalize their assertions, claiming or implying that the individual’s life is “God’s” property (e.g., see my previous post). Sometimes they invoke other people or society, claiming or implying that the individual’s life belongs to others. Consider some examples of the latter.

Writing for the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, Nadin Naumann argues on explicitly collectivist grounds against the individual’s right to take his own life, asking, “And how about the friends and family that are affected by their loved one’s diagnosis? Shouldn’t they get a say in this?” Obviously a person’s friends and family may “get a say” insofar as he wishes to take their views into consideration. But they have no moral right to forcibly interfere with his decision—and Naumann fails to draw that distinction.

Also writing for Daily Signal, Katrina Trinko seeks to undercut Brittany Maynard’s claim that she “died with dignity” in choosing to end her own life rather than wait to die from her aggressive brain tumor. Trinko asks, “If a death of terminal cancer, with all the terrible suffering it brings, isn’t dignified, what else will be classified as undignified?” Trinko’s (unclearly stated) concern here is that, if an individual may decide to end his own life, then society at large might decide to end certain people’s lives on the grounds that their lives are “undignified.”

Does Trinko not see the obvious difference between an individual choosing to end his own life and others ending it for him against his will? In Maynard’s case, Maynard decided that ending her own life with drugs would be better for her than waiting for cancer to kill her. Trinko presumes that the choice must be up to society and that, to prevent state-sponsored murder, society must outlaw assisted suicide as well. Trinko ignores the rational alternative: a government that protects individual rights across the board.

John Andrews, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, makes a similar error. Superficially, he seems to argue against collectivism, but in fact he argues from a collectivist premise:

Assisted suicide laws are the thin end of a wedge leading ultimately to Nazi-style decisions by government and “experts” of who deserves to live or die. “Life unworthy of life” was the chilling phrase in Hitler’s Third Reich. And it will come here if allowed, you watch.

That comparison is absurd. Assisted suicide laws recognize the individual’s moral right to decide whether to end his own life and to seek lethal doses of medication from willing providers. In effect, Andrews claims that, to prevent the “wrong” kind of collectivism from taking hold, society must implement the “right” kind of collectivism—his kind of collectivism. But there is not and cannot be any such thing as a collective’s right to deny an individual’s right. Groups as such do not have rights; only individuals (who may be members of various groups) have rights.

The meaning of conservatives’ collectivist position against the individual’s right to end his own life is that individuals must suffer for the alleged good of the collective. That should ring an ominous bell.

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