Saturday, April 14, 2018
Mahatma Ghandi reputedly said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” We could paraphrase this in a contemporary context: a nation’s right-to-die laws are measured by how it treats the disabled.
Our lead story this week deals with the euthanasia of patients with an intellectual disability or autism in the Netherlands. Four bioethicists suggest that the necessary safeguards are lacking in these cases.
That is bad enough. But they go on to point out that the disabled have to deal with nigh-intolerable suffering for their whole lives. How does legal euthanasia make them feel? In the words of another author, “If society endorses the right of a person to seek physician assistance to end his or her life because of increasing loss of functional autonomy, what does that say about how our society values the lives of people who live with comparable limitations every day of their lives for years on end?”
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Contemporary cosmetic surgery has become a tool for realising bizarre personal fantasies. Sometimes it also leads to significant bodily harm. “Tongue-splitting” is an operation whereby a person’s tongue is split from the tip to as far back as the underside base. The operation has become a common alteration for body-modification enthusiasts, who say it heightens their sense of taste and touch.
Some jurisdictions, however, have enacted a ban on the procedure. The operation can be painful, and can temporarily impede one’s capacity for speech.
In a recent post on the blog Practical Ethics, UK lawyer Charles Foster considers the legality and ethics of the procedure.
Foster discusses the case of R v BM, where a Wolverhampton tattooist was found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on a patient after splitting their tongue. Even though the customer consented, the court found that consent was not a defence against having inflicted grievous bodily harm.
Foster argues that the ruling represents a defence of basic human dignity, which transcends the ambit of personal autonomy:
[The ruling] is a salutary reminder that there are limits to the law’s protection of personal autonomy. Factors other than autonomy are in play in the criminal law. I have argued elsewhere that the primary factor (and the foundational factor in the criminal law – in which all other factors, including autonomy, are rooted) is human dignity.Indeed, Foster argues that in harming another, one does violence to one’s own human dignity:
One might say that X causing injury to Y is doubly culpable because in doing so X outrages not only Y’s dignity but also his own (X’s) dignity...dignity is ‘Janus-faced’.