By James Eglinton, Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology, New College, University of Edinburgh

THE assisted suicide of David Goodall, the elderly Australian scientist who died at a Swiss clinic last week, has been feted by many as the confirmation that a life of individual choice should be free to end in one final act of self-determination: death at one’s own discretion. Dr Goodall, a man in remarkably good health for his 104 years, did not choose assisted suicide because of terminal illness. Rather, he believed he had lived enough, and wanted to close his story on his own terms. Following a final meal of fish and chips, surrounded by family, and with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his parting soundtrack, he initiated the lethal infusion that ended his life.

Champions of euthanasia have held up Dr Goodall’s life and death as a leading example of physician-assisted suicide as something that primarily concerns the dignity of the individual. The indignity suffered in this case, we hear, is that a lucid elderly man had to fly across the world to find medical professionals who would meet his desire to die. How much better for him, the argument goes, if he could have done this in his own country. In that regard, he has become our age’s poster-centenarian for assisted suicide.

This line of thinking treats voluntary euthanasia as an individual matter, as though Dr Goodall’s choice poses no threat to those who wish to go on living. In reality, however, had his choice to die been enabled in his own country, the consequences for his fellow citizens would have been profound.

The consequences of voluntary euthanasia extend across a community in its entirety. A society that legalises it automatically creates a new pair of choices for all of its citizens. These choices – to stop living, or to carry on living – are both novelties occasioned by the legalisation of euthanasia. If the terminally ill are granted the right to die, every terminally ill person who declines this new possibility is necessarily making the counter-choice to carry on living. The same is true regardless of which group is given the right to choose death: the old, the ill, the depressed, the poor, and so on.

In the absence of voluntary euthanasia, one’s ongoing life is a sacred, unchosen thing that needs no justification. This changes with legalised euthanasia, which fundamentally alters our relationship to life. For those given this new freedom, to live on becomes a decision to be made and, ultimately, justified.

No country that allows euthanasia, of course, asks those who choose to carry on living to defend their choice. From the state’s perspective, it remains a strictly individual decision. However, for communities faced with these choices – think, for example, of a society where most people will live into old age, and where care for the elderly is increasingly expensive – hard questions about justification seem inevitable: Am I a burden to my family or country? Is my ongoing life worth the expense of my treatment? Would my children be better off if I chose not to live? Would anyone care if I chose euthanasia?

Statistically, most support for legalised euthanasia comes from those who have the least to fear from it: the wealthy, the highly educated, and the powerful. Although Dr Goodall is the face of assisted suicide in 2018, the average euthanised person in 50 years will have a different profile. He or she will be younger, poorer, in worse health, not surrounded by family, no Beethoven playing as she dies. Euthanasia will exclude them and their community from the next playground of the wealthy: ripe old age.