The ‘Slippery Slope’ is one of the most interesting types of argument, because it is neither consistently valid, or invalid. When claiming:
If A (proposal) happens, it will cause B, which in turn will cause C,… which will cause Z.
Z (outcome) is clearly undesirable, and should not happen.
Therefore A (proposal) should not happen.
The validity of the argument depends on the validity of each causal link, and tends to be
assumed to be invalid if the links are not explained. The arguments’ strength is inversely proportional to the number of links (since each additional link injects a degree of doubt), and proportional to the causal strength of each connection. If one of the causal links is weak, then (to stretch the metaphor) we might assume there is a plateau on the slope, or the slope has become rather less slippery. Sticky, even.
Thus, whilst I tend to point out a large number of invalid arguments and shout, “Aha! A Slippery Slope! Close your mouth-hole and go lie in a ditch”, specific slippery slopes require a little more investigation.
Murdering Innocents For Fun
As you probably gathered from the title, the issue in question is euthanasia and assisted suicide, opponents of which both deploy the slippery slope argument frequently. This is particularly pressing now, after the death of Tony Nicklinson* and the appointment of a pro-Right To Die MP, Anna Soubry, as Health Minister, both of which are pushing for Parliamentary resolution on the matter. Soubry’s comments to The Times, and the support of Norman Lamb MP (her Lib Dem equivalent) has prompted a strong reaction from the British Medical Association (henceforth BMA) and opposition with the Conservative Party.
With all of this in mind, we’ll take a look at the arguments marshalled against euthanasia and assisted suicide, with ‘slippery slope’ coming first. We will then briefly look at the pro-choice arguments, before resting on a conclusion I think you can probably guess already.
It feels quite unfair to quote the argument of Mark Pritchard MP, currently the most vocal pro-lifer, since his on-record remarks effectively straw-man themselves. But I’m a thunderous cock, so I will:
“This is a slippery slope, which incrementally and over time, will reduce the ‘right to life’.”
– BBC News, 8-11-12, link above
This is put more elaborately, if in a more alarmist term, by Paul Tully of the group SPUC Pro-Life:
[People with disabilities would be faced with] “the sickening prospect that if they struggle with suicidal feelings they will be given help to die instead of care and support…Such a move would allegedly save huge amounts of public funds in the costs of caring for disabled, elderly and supposedly unproductive people…Disabled people must speak up now before the minister starts trying to legislate against their equal right to exist.”
Before we discuss our amphibian friend, let’s ignore the underlined clause, since none of the pro-choice arguments I’ve ever read have even mentioned saving public funds or disposing of unproductive people, so he’s rebutting (or, super straw-manning) an argument that doesn’t exist. (Even then, he isn’t actually rebutting it, just stating it in terms that make it [rightly] seem unacceptable.)
Both pro-lifers use formulations of a particularly fun version of the Slippery Slope, called
the ‘Boiling Frog’ after they myth that a frog will jump out of boiling water, but if placed in tepid water that is very slowly heated to boiling, will remain placid and die. The analogy follows that legislation for Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia will (i) cause a change in public opinion, normalising the idea of the measures and increasing their cultural acceptability, contributing to (ii) greater numbers of those who might request such measures feeling emotional, financial or interpersonal pressure from friends or loved ones to pop off earlier than usual.
As discussed above, the SS relies on causal links similar to (i) and (ii). The problem with them, in short, is that they’re bollocks. They attack the spectre of early-twentieth century euthanasia, often explicitly breaking Godwin’s Lawby comparing current issues (and remember, here, people are just calling for a debate) to the eugenics of the Nazis. This utterly ignores the sensible nature of the legislation Lord Falconer et al might have in mind. You see, because pro-choicers tend to be motivated by compassion, not a mechanical need to save NHS funds, they too have worried about the dangers of legislation.
Contrary to the pro-lifers’ assumptions, serious Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia proposals contain very important clauses limiting the abilities of doctors to wantonly execute whoever asks them to do so. Instead, they require a protracted time-period of consideration, a full and repeated knowledge of possible treatment and coping options, psychological assessments, and substantive checks that no pressure is being applied to the applicant. An excellent example is Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act (imagine that, America is more progressive than us on a social issue!) A very small percentage of sick people even try to petition for such extraordinary measures, and the hyperbolic forecast that all disabled, aged or ‘unproductive’ people would come anywhere near a synonymous situation is not only fallacious, but quite possibly offensive to the great many of them who are physically able to complete suicide without assistance (and without the checks I just described), should the feeling so take them, and to people such as Mr Nicklinson for equating his paralysed situation to that of such a wide and unrepresentative population.
In essence, the slippery slope falls down because no-one was actually proposing to boil the frog in the first place. [Now there’s a line I never expected to write.] What then are the other pro-life arguments?
– Life is intrinsically valuable, and should never be taken. This argument is largely Christian-based, and it pisses me right off that it’s constant repetition in the media and day-to-day life has ingrained otherwise-sensible people with such a ridiculous notion. The SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) is one that is more than happy to deploy Christian language in attacks on abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and presumably right to life. I’m preparing to do a mini-series attacking all the post-Christian influences that current affect us (on issues like patriarchy, abortion, homosexuality, foreign relations) but in the meantime, just assume that I think this reasoning is totally invalid in
legislation. It’s fine for an individual Catholic to abhor suicide and celebrate life in all its forms; even Tolkien did it, having Gandalf lambast Denethor’s attempt proclaiming, “It is not given to you…to choose the hour of your death…such was only done by heathen kings in their final despair, who slew themselves and their kin with them to ease the grief of their passing.” Tolkien actually grasps the thistle with this quote, because many of us are ‘heathen’ and don’t give a shit what YHWH thought about how to live or die. In this, a practically secular country, laws cannot and should not enshrine the values of any particular faith (or faith-denomination) in law, nor force all citizens to live by the same.
Two of the other arguments against death-granting reside in areas beyond my expertise. One suggests that permitting it would create ‘legal precedent’ for killing, which might endanger us in the future. Obviously, this is another slippery slope, but perhaps a stronger one given the reality of common law. It’s lucky, then, that the debate is now focused on a parliamentary solution, not a court-based one.
The second is medical. To many pro-lifers, including those with terrible disabilities or illnesses who themselves nearly took the flight to Switzerland, “there is always hope.” Depending on the speaker and the specific malady affecting the patient, there may be rumours of new cures, stories of miraculous recoveries, and examples of other people wanting to die who were unable to, and found meaning in life through x action. This argument is fine, but necessarily must be hand-crafted towards each individual death-supplicant, and in any case, represents at best a persuasion. If it was put any stronger (or in law), it would essentially be telling the patient ‘No matter how much pain and suffering you are in, no matter how well informed you are about the medicine, what chances your doctors have given you, how long you’ve considered your situation, we know best. Keep suffering, chin up old boy!” And this seems patronising, seems to undermine the basis of self-determination, and moreover completely ignores the subjectiveness of pain. It is GREAT that some people with debilitating conditions choose to live on, often doing GREAT work in charity, with their families, in art etc. However this DOES NOT mean a completely different person with a comparable malady should be forced to choose the same.
The final, and strongest, ‘pro-life’ argument, as put forward by the BMA’s president
Baroness Hollins, is that doctors simply “don’t want to kill patients”. I sympathise with this sentiment, and think it’s fine. I just don’t think assisted suicide is killing at all (especially no more than DNR orders or Double Effect cases), and that individual doctors who oppose euthanasia should never be forced to do it. Those happy to ease someone’s passing, should. As mentioned before, it would not become a widespread procedure and would not require all doctors to routinely execute patients before and after lunch.
Arguments for euthanasia and assisted suicide
The first of these is simple self-determination and dignity. Able-bodied people can choose to complete suicide in a whole variety of ways, and are often applauded for it (e.g. Scott’s Antartic Expedition, Custer’s Last Stand, Boromir taking on the Uruk-Hai, the crop-duster in Independence Day.) Through no fault of their own, some people are robbed of the ability to choose such passings, yet live in pains comparable or worse. Enabling their honest and rational decisions to die is a facilitation and a kindness, presumably allowing loved ones to be nearby and the death to be at the time and place of the patient’s choosing. To me this is far superior to the Swiss Clinic option, which in any case is excluded from some people too sick to travel.
To remain loyal to my title, I’ll briefly turn to Aragorn and his race, the Dunedain/Numenorians, whose conduct in late life flies in the face of JRRT’s otherwise-consistently Catholic line. This race were granted Methuselah-length lives, and originally lived to c.400. Their kings, having reigned for centuries and confident in the skills of their adult sons, would give up their reigns and their lives whilst still mentally and physically capable. Eventually Sauron corrupted them, and they are criticised for ‘refusing to depart until witless and unmanned…denying son kingship in the height of their stature’. I’m currently young, and of course would not impose this view on anyone, but this attitude does have a strong appeal to me personally. Aragorn himself eventually lays down and dies voluntarily and gracefully, an act I’ve never noticed criticised despite the book’s phenomenal popularity. Legislating for Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia is merely extending this kindness and grace to those in the real world unable to simply end.
Another strand of the pro-choice argument runs simply that in some cases, ending pain is more important than enduring pain and prolonging a miserable life. Now, this may weaken my own position, but I don’t think it is inappropriate for a patient to consider the emotions and wellbeing of those he cares for when making his/her decisions. Again, this is subjective, and is not the same as a family pressuring grandpa to pull the plug so they can get their grubby hands on their inheritance money a little sooner. This is a patient who is already in great suffering, who loves those around him and knows that seeing him wither, lose mental faculty, bear natural torture and quite possibly cease to mentally resemble the person they once loved, is a viable factor in deciding how and when to live or die. Equally, of course, a counterbalance is that the patient might be expected to consider that a friend or loved one might be unwilling or too sad to assist the suicide or perform the euthanasia.
A final argument in the pro-choice side is that there is no distinction between the Withdrawal of Treatment causing/allowing death (e.g. Do Not Resuscitate orders), or the Rule of Double Effect (e.g. giving someone loads of morphine to ease their pain, knowing it will also kill them), and active euthanasia or assisted suicide. The ‘passive euthanasias’ are both legal and standard practise. It seems perverse and even cruel that the similar rights to dignified, pain-free deaths are withheld to equally deserving, equally desiring people purely based on their specific illness parameters.
I fully support Soubry and Lamb’s calls for parliamentary debate, and hope that debate can happen without everyone going mental. I accept that the threats involved are real so an extent, but that the appropriate legislation would minimise those threats, and provide more good than harm.
See also: Lord Carey, Anne Widdecombe and Queers
Tune in next week, where we’ll be discussing abortion and quite possibly infanticide!
* I’m really annoyed at virtually all news stations which now state that Nicklinson ‘died of natural causes’ a week after the ruling that his wife couldn’t assist his suicide in a dignified, painless way. Instead, he, already in great pain and distress from Locked In Syndrome, had to complete suicide in the most excruciating of ways – [Details whited out, highlight if you must] he starved himself since the ruling and caught pneumonia. I have this as an aside because of my opposition to using individual, emotionally-charged examples in arguments, them usually failing induction standards. This note, however, is more an indictment of the media and an expression of my own sorrow.
UPDATE: This article has been slightly amended to follow the Samaritans’ guidelines on the media discussing this topic, which I’d broken. It’s a good, important read.