“Death Talk”

This semester, Lifeline has decided to focus on the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide.


Euthanasia: the act or practice of killing hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy; also: the act or practice of allowing a hopelessly sick or injured patient to die by taking less than complete medical measures to prolong life—called also mercy killing.
– Merriam Webster Medical Definition


Definitions of these terms and concepts are important, and must be understood first before dialogue can take place. What are we talking about when we speak of euthanasia and assisted suicide? “Death talk”, to be sure, as Margaret Somerville has aptly named her book: Death Talk: The Case Against Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide.

We are choosing to look at various articles, cases, philosophers and ethicists who speak to this issue, recognizing that it is a dialogue that all peoples should partake in, especially students. All living things eventually die. Death is a process and an event that is inevitable, one that naturally occurs, but for human beings, it is a gravely and considerably significant event as it is a great “marker” of life.

“What we do and choose not to do in relation to both the passing on of human life (genetics and reproductive technologies) and the ending of it (euthanasia) will create the metaphysical reality, the sense of meaning, within which we live our lives. We have always used birth and death, the two great “marker events” of human life, as central to our search for meaning.” – Margaret Somerville, p xvi

As students who will be future physicians, lawyers, teachers, parents, and in positions of care for the elderly (our own grandparents and parents), this is a topic that is in great need of discussion to come to a better understanding of its ramifications and consequences on our individual lives, family lives, as well as the state of society. We have to confront this topic of death with a seriousness, openness, and with a genuine desire to respect and care for life even in the face of uncertainty and lack of clarity on tough issues. Consider Somerville’s words that:

“Euthanasia confirms the power of death over hope, of death over life. It fails to recognize the great mystery that allowing death to occur, when its time has come, is an act of life. Euthanasia is an act of death. There is a vast difference between natural death ad euthanasia.” 

For many, the issue of euthanasia is already a non-issue, a practise that ought to be legalized as it is in other countries.  Philosopher from the University of Toronto, Wayne Sumner, maintains that: “legalizing assisted death responds to a real and immediate need on the part of those who are experiencing needless suffering at the end of life and it is simply cruel to deny them this relief on the basis of nothing more than vague speculation,” in his book Assisted Death: A Study in Ethics & Law. Canada is on the verge of this great decision right now, as  the case of Gloria Taylor in BC who legally won the case for her “right” to die, for having a physician assist in bringing about her death. Wanting to take death into your own hands (your own death) to plan when, where, and how you go, indeed seems like a right that we should have, especially in a society where we are accustomed to choice, to individual rights, and to autonomy over our own decisions and actions. But we need to ask if there is a problem with that. It requires acknowledging that there are many things we CAN do with technology that we OUGHT not do; that there are many actions and choices that we can make but would be wrong to do so. And of course, establishing why that is the case.  Again consider Somerville’s words:

In the debate over genetic and reproductive technologies, as well as euthanasia, we are debating much more than simply the appropriate use of technology.  We are debating matters that include the nature of individual human identity, the ethical and legal tone of society, and the new paradigm for a global community which will guide us into the future and be handed on to those who follow us. – p 9

Our decisions now on issues like euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide will set the precedent for future generations, and determine the ethical and legal tone of our society. In a Westernized society (and country) where there is a great liberalization of rights, morals, and freedoms, what, if any, universal principles can be upheld by all when it comes to how we handle and respect human life and death?

These questions and more are what we as students of McMaster Lifeline intend on discussing this term.

Join us Wednesday January 16th at anytime between 4:30-6:30 in Healthsci B120 for a presentation on euthanasia, given by Teresa Hartnett, chair of Hamilton’s Sexual Health Network, and discussion with students afterwards.

Articles for further reading:

How do we want our great, great grandchildren to die? – Somerville

More to come!


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