Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly . COVER STORY . Right to Live . August 26, 2005 | PBS
Leslie Burke took his case to court, asking that artificial nutrition and fluids not be withheld when he becomes incapacitated. A high court agreed, ruling that doctors must abide by the wishes of the patient if those wishes are expressed while the patient is still competent. Disabled rights groups cheered the verdict. Not so Britain's National Health Service, which must pay the bills; not so many doctors; and not so the General Medical Council, which appealed.
This is the stuff we need to hear. We'd like to believe that there was a pre-established harmony in these matters. That people who are inconvenient or expensive to maintain would want to be put down. The media run innumerable feel-good stories to soothe us and persuade us that what we want--to be rid of inconvenient people who impose an emotional burden on us and whose maintenance costs money--is in their interests as well as ours.
Sorry. Not so. I would trade the destruction of the entire universe for one more minute of survival, in any state whatsoever. That isn't a moral decision. It's a prudential decision--that is what I want and, I believe, getting what one wants, whatever it is, is the greatest good.
Now from the moral point of view, conflicting interests have to be traded off. Maybe it would not be the morally correct decision to keep Mr. Burke alive at the expense of the taxpayer. It certainly wouldn't be morally decent to trade the destruction of the entire universe for one more minute of my survival. Maybe it would be desirable to propagandize people into preferring to be put down when they are burdensome or expensive to maintain.
But let us at least be honest. We cannot assume that putting down people who are inconvenient or expensive is always in their interests. There is a conflict of interests between patients who want to survive and others on whom they impose a burden. Some patients may want to die. That's fine--pull their plugs or give them the wherewithall to suicide out. Others don't--let's not fool ourselves into thinking that they would be better off dead. Wellbeing is what one wants, whatever it is.