The Religious Presuppositions of Secular Arguments for Euthanasia
John Tambakis, MDiv (c), Research Student, Department of Medicine - Division of Respirology, University Health Network
Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are often advocated as morally acceptable options for patients with “grievous and irremediable” illness. The case for euthanasia is based on two key bioethical principles, “respect for autonomy” and “ beneficence” (where causing death is taken to be beneficent). These principles are often presented as universally accepted ethical principles and neutral starting points to which all citizens in a pluralistic, liberal democracy can adhere. By contrast, religious ethical principles are understood to be faith-based, ideological pre-commitments. We contend that secular ethical principles are equivalently ‘religious’, reflecting specific metaphysical and meta-ethical assumptions. To demonstrate the religious character of secular ethical reasoning, we analyze the secular argumentation in support of euthanasia. First, secular reasoning takes the supremacy of personal autonomy as a fundamental starting point. Religious frameworks require a final evaluator/judge of morality. While traditional religious frameworks have featured God in this role, in the quasi-religious doctrine of euthanasia the individual replaces God as the final evaluator of right and wrong. Second, secular reasoning in support of euthanasia makes assumptions about personal annihilation after death. All religious frameworks have a vision of what happens after death and the secularism that underpins arguments for euthanasia is no different. We conclude by drawing out the implications of the theory-laden character of secular arguments for euthanasia for the justification of conscientious objection to participation.