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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Teaching doctors to kill?

One of the implications of euthanasia is that it involves teaching doctors to take life. Margaret Somerville argues that:

We also need to consider how the legalisation of euthanasia could affect the profession of medicine and its practitioners. Euthanasia takes both beyond their fundamental roles of caring, healing and curing whenever possible. It involves them, no matter how compassionate their motives, in the infliction of death on those for whom they provide care and treatment. ...
Can we imagine teaching medical students how to administer euthanasia - how to kill their patients? A fundamental attitude we reinforce in medical students, interns and residents is a repugnance toward the idea of killing patients. If physicians were authorised to administer euthanasia, it would no longer be possible to instil that repugnance. Maintaining this repugnance and, arguably, the intuitive recognition of a need for it, are demonstrated in the outraged reactions against physicians carrying out capital punishment when laws provide for them to do so. We do not consider their involvement acceptable - not even for those physicians who personally are in favour of capital punishment. What would we lose by legalising euthanasia?

Is this a problem though? The following discussion of the study of the experience of killing in war by Stanley Hauerwas is to say the least thought provoking.

I think it is a mistake to focus - as we most often do - only on the sacrifice of life that war requires. War also requires that we sacrifice our normal unwillingness to kill. It may seem odd to call the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill "a sacrifice," but this sacrifice often renders the lives of those who make it unintelligible. The sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill is but the dark side of the willingness in war to be killed. I am not suggesting that every person who has killed in war suffers from having killed. But I do believe that those who have killed without the killing troubling their lives should not have been in the business of killing in the first place.
In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt Col Dave Grossman reports on General S.L.A. Marshall's study of men in battle in World War II. Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire during a battle, only 15 to 20 would take part by firing their weapons. This led Marshall to conclude that the average or healthy individual, that is, the person who could endure combat, "still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility." Lt Col Grossman observes that to study killing in combat is very much like the study of sex: "Killing is a private, intimate occurrence of tremendous intensity, in which the destructive act becomes psychologically very much like the procreative act." Telling the truth about the sacrifice of war
Essentially what euthanasia requires is that doctors will be asked to undertake the sacrifice of overcoming societal norms and undertake the task of taking human life. If we wish to take the step of legalising the taking of life we need to be clear about the human implications of what we are doing and who will bear the burden of this.