Secularists' Beliefs on Euthanasia

Does modern medical technology preserve life or prolong death?
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Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is among most divisive issues in our society. A 2010 Angus Reid Public Opinion Poll shows 42 percent of Americans polled in favor of legalizing euthanasia and 36 percent opposed. Because the most vocal opposition to euthanasia comes from a religious perspective, it's easy to assume that secularists are for euthanasia and religious people are against it. As with most issues, it's not that simple. There are deeply religious people who support euthanasia, and there are secularists who oppose it.

1 Suffering and the Right to Die

One of the strongest secular arguments for euthanasia is the right each person has to control his or her own body, including when and how to die. Proponents of this argument believe that no person or government agency has the right to keep people from making decisions that affect only themselves. A related argument is that it is morally wrong to prolong the suffering of a person who wishes to end it.

Secular arguments against these assertions include the idea that we need to limit our rights by our obligations to society, and that legal euthanasia may have negative consequences for friends and family of the deceased as well as people who could be exploited by it. Many secular philosophers also believe in a nonreligious sanctity of human life that would be violated by euthanasia.

2 Palliative Care and Healthcare Spending

Secularists opposed to euthanasia worry that legalizing the practice would lead to degrading palliative (end-of-life) care and pressure on those in need of palliative care to choose assisted suicide instead. They cite the lack of hospice facilities in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is legal, as a negative example. They also feel that healthcare professionals might abuse the option of euthanasia to save already stretched healthcare funds.

Those in favor of euthanasia feel that it is only one option in a palliative care philosophy based on compassion and respect for a patient's autonomy. They do not feel that the possibility of abuse is a valid reason to remove this option.

3 Hippocratic Oath

At the core of the Hippocratic Oath taken by all doctors is the promise not to do harm. More specifically, the Oath states that a physician may not kill a patient, even if he asks to be killed. The Hippocratic Oath is seen as the sacrosanct code by which all physicians must practice, and assisting a patient's suicide goes against this code.

Advocates for euthanasia argue that the Hippocratic Oath has been changed before to adjust to the changing mores of an evolving society. There was a time when the Oath prohibited a physician from breaking a patient's skin and barred women from practicing medicine, for example. Euthanasia advocates believe this is another point at which the Oath has become outdated and needs to be revised.

4 Value of Death

Behind many of the arguments opposing euthanasia is the over-arching assumption that death is bad, and that assisting someone in dying is taking something good away and giving them something worse in return. There are many disparate spiritual, philosophical and scientific secular beliefs concerning death. This argument, however, asks people to consider the subjectiveness of a negative view of death, and ask themselves why they have the right to deny another person death when that person's beliefs and views on life and death may be completely different from their own.

Amy Wilde has worked as a grant developer, copy editor, writing tutor and writer. Based in Portland, Ore., she covers topics related to society, religion and culture. Wilde holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and classical civilization from the University of Toronto.