If western society continues to follow the Dutch, Belgian and Canadian examples, there is every chance that in a few decades’ time euthanasia will be one widely available option from a menu of possible deaths, including an “end of life” poison pill available on demand to anyone who finds life unbearable. For many greying baby boomers – veterans of earlier struggles to legalise abortion and contraception – a civilised death at a time of their choosing is a right that the state should provide and regulate. As this generation enters its final years, the precept that life is precious irrespective of one’s medical condition is being called into question as never before.
As the world’s pioneer, the Netherlands has also discovered that although legalising euthanasia might resolve one ethical conundrum, it opens a can of others – most importantly, where the limits of the practice should be drawn. In the past few years a small but influential group of academics and jurists have raised the alarm over what is generally referred to, a little archly, as the “slippery slope” – the idea that a measure introduced to provide relief to late-stage cancer patients has expanded to include people who might otherwise live for many years, from sufferers of muscle-wasting diseases such as multiple sclerosis to sexagenarians with dementia and even mentally ill young people.