The religious hijack of bioethics

By September 22, 2017Society

Bioethics Professor Margaret Somerville is from the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia, and she has written a piece in the Guardian bemoaning the concept, let alone the implementation of voluntary euthanasia. Legislation legalising Voluntary Euthanasia is currently before the Victorian Parliament.

Somerville’s argument is familiar, but she does start off the substantive part of the article with the fact that the “pro-euthanasia case is straightforward and easy to make … It focuses on a suffering, competent, adult individual who wants to die and gives informed consent to euthanasia. She then states that proponents argue that a “person’s right to autonomy overrides other considerations, concerns and values” but neglects to say what those considerations, concerns and values are. Then there is the first red herring. She states that proponents “reject history – especially any reference to the Nazi atrocities – as having anything, or at least anything valuable, to teach us regarding euthanasia”. She is right, it doesn’t have anything to teach us about voluntary euthanasia, as the Nazi programme was involuntary. However, Somerville then lapses into the old religious chestnut of the ‘slippery slope’ which organisations such as the Australian Christian Lobby constantly trot out when euthanasia is mentioned3. She then says that in the Netherlands euthanasia is now not restricted to competent adults in unbearable suffering but is now available to “children, newborn babies with serious disabilities and people with dementia and mental illness”. It is difficult to know where to start with this, as Somerville provides little data. There are many places where the Dutch experience is dealt with in greater detail than is possible here4,5; however, few of them are reliable, having been produced by religious groups, unreliable newspapers (e.g. Daily Mail) or websites (Breitbart). Factual data can be found in a paper written by Pereira in Current Oncology6.

The remaining parts of Somerville’s article are simply a reiteration of the ‘slippery slope’ argument and includes some selective use of data which has been dealt with elasewhere3. These arguments all amount to the assertion that voluntary euthanasia will become involuntary euthanasia. This is refuted by the experience in Oregon, in the US, where voluntary euthanasia has been available for 20 years3.

The hijacking of bioethics by the religious follows the hijacking of morals by them, and the latter is one of the greatest tragedies inflicted on humanity. The Nazi’s assertion that they kill people whose lives are not worth living is an appalling thing to contemplate; the fact that some ideologue gets to decide my life is not worth living. However, Somerville is in the same boat. She is presumably an ideologue, in that she teaches at the Catholic University of Notre Dame Australia, and I suspect that, as an atheist, I could not hope to get a job there7. While Nazis could have decided that my life was not worth living, Somerville has decided that my life must be worth living, irrespective of the circumstances or of my wishes. Depending on those circumstances, I will decide the value of my remaining life, and will not have Nazis or Catholics telling me what to do. The religious need not only to get out of people’s lives, but also their deaths.




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