In backing assisted dying ‘The Economist’ turns a blind eye to its dangers

By Michael Cook

As a reflection of the influence of classical liberal thought upon current affairs, the British “newspaper”, The Economist, has no peer. Its tightly written leaders (editorials) and backgrounders are extremely influential. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, is said to have remarked: “I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist.”

So its stand on euthanasia is bound to affect the debate.

In 2015 The Economist decided to defy the taboo on euthanasia, as it had with a number of progressive social issues, like same-sex marriage. This week it renewed its commitment with a leader, “The welcome spread of assisted dying”, accompanied by a backgrounder.

It is well enough informed about arguments from opponents of euthanasia to airily dismiss them: abuse of the vulnerable, the slippery slope, the need for palliative care, the danger of killing people with dementia and so on. It concludes with a classic endorsement of the liberal creed:

But the overall principle—that individuals are entitled to choose how they end their lives—is, we believe, a sound one. The evidence from countries that allow assisted dying is that abuses remain largely hypothetical, whereas the benefits are real and substantial. It relieves suffering, and restores a measure of dignity to people at the end of their lives.

This framing of the issue – “that individuals are entitled to choose” – comes directly from Sinai, that is, John Stuart Mill. But there are problems with this to which The Economist turns a blind eye. In the name of choice every taboo can be broken – even, for instance, cannibalism. It shrinks from metaphysical questions about the nature of the choice — in the name of freedom, how can anyone annihilate his freedom?

It is also brutal in asserting the right of individual choice over the common good:

But the possibility that some may agonise over whether to die should not trump the certainty that others will suffer unendurable pain if their freedom to choose is denied.

In the course of the leader, The Economist acknowledged that some practices, like euthanasia for the demented, are beyond the pale at the moment. But, like all taboos, this could melt away with progress:

No rules in this area are perfect. All should be subject to revision in the light of new evidence about how they work in practice, or to take account of medical advances.

As a description of the working of the slippery slope, this could hardly be bettered.

Editor’s note. This appeared at Bioedge and is reposted with permission.