Euthanasia: Big laws and small laws

by Paul Russell:

"When you break the big laws, you do not get freedom; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws." G.K. Chesterton.

Such are the consequences of breaking down the prohibitions on killing and assisting in suicide.

Western democracies seem more and more these days to have forgotten that the big statute laws such as the prohibitions on homicide are really about the state codifying immutable truths as custodians of genuine, equal and inalienable rights. The principle error in places like The Netherlands and Belgium with euthanasia was the acceptance of the false principle that, in all things, the state is a law unto itself; that it can define and redefine the nature of things by its own will.

There are always consequences. When we change from 'do not kill' to 'only kill in some circumstances' we necessarily need to define those circumstances; the 'small laws'. These 'small laws' lack the precision of the 'big laws'. In terms of euthanasia and assisted suicide, they rely on subjective assessment. Whereas the 'big laws' are clear and allow for our courts to assess the circumstances, attendant penalties and the application of mercy, the 'small laws' such as who might qualify for state sanctioned death, are really little more than unenforceable guidelines.

The moral code prohibiting homicide - which the law had previously endorsed and enforced - is breached. The 'small laws' that follow are entirely consequential and support Chesterton's hypothesis.

Indeed, it can be observed that the necessity of these consequential 'small laws' can be taken as a retrospective proof that the 'big law' was, itself, a guarantee of a freedom or duty that existed prior to the state and which the state should never have messed with.

Difficult if not impossible to enforce, these new 'small laws' render the 'big law' increasingly impotent in its original principles of protecting citizens from harm.

In The Netherlands, successive court judgements from the 1980s preceded the 2002 legislation and 'small laws' continue to follow on in one form or another.

In Belgium, the public prosecutor's role in pursing homicides is deeply compromised in respect to euthanasia. That office has been largely neutered; the regulatory role having been passed to a commission who assesses reports on each euthanasia deaths properly notified. In more than a decade, no cases have been referred for possible prosecution.

The growing list of publicised euthanasia cases suggest that there have been many where further scrutiny should have been applied. That some doctors don't report their cases at all is also well known. Even these flimsy guidelines are being deliberately flaunted without comment and without redress.

Having trampled over the logical moral boundary against killing, more 'small laws' become inevitable. Again, Belgium springs easily to mind having extended its 2002 laws in 2013 to include euthanasia for minors and having also expanded the concept of the original law to now include euthanasia for psychiatric reasons.

What began as a response, albeit a dubious one, to the question of suffering at the end-of-life, has become a right. The state, having created a right has a duty to provide the means.

Initially this duty created no obligation on anyone except the state; the person would request euthanasia voluntarily and there was no obligation on any doctor to agree. Medical professionals were free to decline on grounds of conscience and/or on other grounds.

That defence - the right to refuse or to dissent - is now also under serious threat in a number of places.

Once the euthanasia monster is unshackled from the 'big laws' it feeds voraciously, gnawing away on the 'small laws' until it gains enough strength and momentum to tackle other 'big laws'.

Conscientious objection is perhaps the last such domino to fall. Though not a 'big law' itself, in terms of formal statutes, it is a hitherto undisturbed 'big principle'. If euthanasia is a right, then there is logic in its imposition.

This may come to a head soon in both Belgium and The Netherlands via a legal stouche following the suicide death in Holland of Milou de Moor after her approval for euthanasia was withdrawn. Her parents have said that they will sue her GP, who pressed for the euthanasia request to be stopped, and the Belgian hospital who agreed to reverse their earlier decision to proceed.

In Canada, the recourse to conscience has fallen even before the breach of the 'big law' on homicide comes into force. The Quebec Government recently made it clear that they will expect the co-operation of all doctors in their coming euthanasia regime, even going so far as to threaten the loss of funding for agencies that refuse to comply.

We break with the 'big laws' at our ultimate peril. 'Small laws' carry little force and are easily eroded of all potency overtime. This is one instance where 'big' is definitely 'better'.

see also:
Quebec tells doctors they will be made to practice euthanasia
Family to sue over withdrawal of euthanasia