Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Ethics of Life and Death: Bristol AASS Discussion

Last Tuesday was a discussion with Bristol AASS on matters spanning from the very beginning to the very end of life. Covering abortion, euthanasia and everything in between it was an interesting discussion and some new members who were medics turned up too.

Starting at abortion we investigated our thoughts about where human life began and on what grounds abortion should be acceptable. The principles we discussed fell into 3 broad categories:

1) Sentience
2) Viability
3) Anthropocentrism

Level of sentience was an important concern, with the stage of development from which the foetus can feel pain as a key point. Whilst practical, some pointed out that the foetus could be anaesthetised so this should not be given as much weight as it is. The vegetarians also pointed out our anthropocentrism in matters of sentience, more willingly killing a cat than a human foetus, despite the former being much more neurologically complex at that state of development.

Viability, or the foetus' ability to survive outside the womb, is frequently used as another benchmark for the abortion limit. Recent attempts to restrict abortion have hinged upon new technological advances allowing foetuses to survive outside the womb from an earlier age. Again, this was another argument to which most could not give much weight because it is not inconceivable that technology could eventually make embryos viable from conception, yet few would have moral qualms about terminating a few cells.

Of the three, I think the consensus was that sentience was the strongest metric, with the other two feeding in to a lesser extent.

The "talented violinist" thought experiment filled a good portion of the debate, questioning whether anyone has the right to use another human's body, even if they are fully developed and have proven potential. This caused quite some controversy with people falling both sides of the fence. Those for it broadly followed a human rights approach (everyone has a right to life, but that does not entail the right to use another person's body) whilst those against took a utilitarian line (9 months of incapacitation will result in both you and another going on to lead full lives).

Moving onto the second part of the discussion which was about the end of life, death, suicide and euthanasia we began by assessing why it was fine to put an animal down "to put them out of their misery" but why this compassion could not be extended to humans. The critical difference identified was that of human agency; whether another human should be allowed to die should not be the choice of anyone but the person themselves.

The provocatively worded question "is it arrogant to assume that someone's life is worth living? (if they don't think it is)" resulted in some stiff debate. People in a temporary mental state could be depressed or suicidal without reason and it wasn't arrogant to check that this was not the case first. If, however, someone has made a rational decision about their situation and is in extreme, incurable  pain all the time but cannot kill themselves, for example, then we should respect their decision. Caitlin G said that, similar to Terry Pratchett, she would be terrified of getting Alzheimers and would prefer death to long, unrelenting debilitation.

The end of the discussion ended with disagreement on who should be allowed assisted dying with one person saying that the person's will should not be the only factor and their their family should be included in the decision too. This brought us full circle back to the "talented violinist" discussion - who has the right to say what you should do with your own body?

As ever, this discussion session was fascinating, fun and full of vigorous debate. If that's your kind of thing, here are some upcoming events you might be interested in:

The next discussion is "Atheism and Feminism" tonight (Tuesday) at 8pm in The Colston Arms

Don't forget to book tickets for the AHS Convention in London on the 1st March. Speakers include Robin Ince and Jim Al-Khalili!

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