Euphemising euthanasia (Part 1)
Bioethicist Margaret Somerville discusses how we talk about life, death and dignity.
Do we – or should we – have the right to choose when and how we die?
Margaret Somerville is originally from Australia but works in Canada as a bioethicist at McGill University. She’s sympathetic to those who see euthanasia as a way of easing suffering – but also strongly disagrees with them. Simon Smart talks to Professor Somerville about what’s happening with euthanasia around the world, why the language we use about it is so important, and why she feels that there’s more to us as humans than we can fully understand.
SIMON SMART: One of the things I’m interested in is talking about the way you might emphasise the communal aspect of this against the individual response. I mean, even if you think about something as simple as what effect this has on the doctors who are responsible, who are asked to do this sort of thing – but “what sort of society do we want to become?” seems to be an important question for you in this.
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: It is. I mean I often use this statement that I wrote many, many years ago that you can’t judge a society by how it treats its strongest, most powerful, most privileged members; you can judge it by how it treats its weakest, most in need, most vulnerable people. And people who are old, and fragile, and dying, they belong in the latter group. So then, if all we’re going to do for them is give them a lethal injection, I think we’re a pretty sad and sick society. Although, one of the problems in this area is that the people who want to do that are doing it for what they perceive to be the most compassionate reasons and empathetic reasons.
SIMON SMART: They do, don’t they, I mean people aren’t doing this out of hateful reasons.
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: No.
SIMON SMART: They’re doing it for mercy, which means it’s a very complicated discussion to have.
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: And its sort of hard to argue against.
SIMON SMART: Now you’ve also written that we need to be able to talk about euthanasia and embed it in a moral context without resorting to religious talk. Why is that, and is it even possible to do it?
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: I think it is. I had a really interesting experience just a few weeks ago – I was being interviewed on one of the major TV stations by a woman who’s a very highly respected interviewer and she said to me before we went on camera, “I’m an atheist, but I’m very interested in what you mean by ‘there’s a mystery in life and there’s a mystery in death.’” And I said, “Well, Mutsumi, you wouldn’t think that.” And she said, “Well of course I think that!” And I thought, how interesting, and we’ve been having a correspondence since then about what would that be for somebody who’s not religious.
And I think that probably a lot of people sense that there’s more to us than we can fully understand. I sometimes refer to us as ‘the ants of the universe’. If you go into the outback of Australia you see these amazing anthills – I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen them – and they’re all built along magnetic lines, and the ants all live in colonies and they know who’s who and what the hierarchy is, you know, they’re properly organised. And as far as we know, I doubt very much that those ants have got any consciousness of our world that their anthill actually exists on. And one of the Japanese sayings is that ‘as the radius of knowledge expands, the circumference of ignorance increases.’ So the further out our knowledge, for instance in genetics and molecular biology and astrophysics and space exploration – if you imagine it as going into deep inner space and deep outer space – the further out we go the bigger that radius, and the bigger the whole of what we know that we don’t know. And so I think that when you understand that, you see science not as explaining everything – which is what happens with the way its presented to a lot of people – but opening up the mystery of what we don’t understand, the mystery of the great unknown.
SIMON SMART: Yes, and so when you say that this normalising of euthanasia would have the effect of destroying some of that mystery and also damaging our human spirit, that’s kind of where you’re leading.
MARGARET SOMERVILLE: That’s exactly what I’m onto.