Sunday, April 18, 2004

Pulling the plug

"I'd never want to live like that!"

When supporters of euthanasia see someone like Terri Schiavo, that's their exclamation. This is undoubtedly the most popular sentiment and powerful argument driving the euthanasia debate. Indeed, that's the only argument for euthanasia. However sophisticated the argumentation becomes, this is the underlying sentiment. Pull this thread, and the whole fabric of reasoning comes unraveled.

And what makes it so persuasive is that it isn't limited to proponents of euthanasia. For opponents of euthanasia feel the same way, do we not? We might not admit so in public debate, but we do have the same visceral reaction. So unless prolifers can defang this argument, we're going to be fighting an uphill battle, both because the argument is so compelling for many proponents of euthanasia, but because the opponents are emotionally conflicted as well.

What makes a heresy appealing is that it ordinarily takes the form of a half-truth. Where the argument for euthanasia breaks down is not on the plane of the premise, but at the level of the conclusion. I daresay that anyone who can grasp the premise will assent to it. But the fallacy lies in the relevance of the premise to the conclusion. The basic drift of the argument is as follows: I'd never want to live like that; hence, I'd rather die that be in that situation.

Now it's often the case that a specious argument is plausible and persuasive until we begin to consider a few counterexamples. So let's run through some parallel assertions.

The ingenue never wants to grow old. The rich man never wants to be poor. The beautiful babe never wants to grow fat and wrinkled. The able-bodied man never wants to be in a wheelchair.

Once we start down this line of reasoning, the examples multiply without limit. "I'd never want to be blind!" "I'd never want to be a midget!" "I'd never want to have crooked teeth!" "I'd never want to be bald!" "I'd never want to be flat-chested!" "I never want to have freckles!" "I'd never want to have cancer!" "I'd never want to be tortured!" "I'd never want to be imprisoned!" &c.

One could rank these sorts of examples from trivial to serious. But what they all have in common is the following form of reasoning: All other things being equal, I'd rather choose A over B.

We all carry around in our head a set of ideals and fantasies. These may be natural or outrageous, playful or impractical. Ordinary men flock to movies in which incredibly brave, strong men perform death-defying feats. Ordinary women flock to movies (or devour books) in which incredibly rich and winsome women are pursued by incredibly brave, strong men.

But most folks have no difficulty adjusting this sort of dumb fun to the real world. Most folks do not commit suicide because their actual circumstances are out of whack with their private fantasies and daunting ideals.

Put another way, we judge a hypothetical situation by the situation we're actually in. But it doesn't follow that if we found ourselves in the hypothetical situation, we'd feel the same way about it.

A genius would never want to have Down syndrome. But, of course, if he did have Down syndrome, he wouldn't know what it's like to be a genius, and so he wouldn't judge his condition by that standard of comparison. Someone with diminished faculties doesn't have the same outlook on life.

And it isn't just a case of lowering the bar. From my observation, the person with Down syndrome is generally more cheerful than the genius. Although his objective quality of life is lower, his subjective quality of life is higher. Not only is he content with less, but he is more content than someone with so much more.

Many folks who see pictures of Terri Schiavo say they'd never want to live that way. But one thing I see when I look at those pictures is a loving and attentive family. Many bright, beautiful, affluent, able-bodied folks don't have a loving family. They have everything except the one thing which matters most—happiness and peace of mind. By and large it isn't the poor who commit suicide, but the well-to-do.

Perhaps the mercy-killers are right when they say it's time to pull the plug. Yes, it's time to pull the plug on the mercy-killers.

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