A Better Case Against Euthanasia For Spain’s Conservatives
Vox is right to stand athwart progressives’ self-righteous defense of euthanasia, but their case should be built on detail and principle, not cynical outrage
“May God forgive you” is perhaps not how floor speeches should end in a secular legislature, but a Vox MP’s use of the sally to lambast Spain’s new euthanasia bill is surprising only if you haven’t caught up with the country’s accelerating descent into culture wars and partisan tribalism. After three failed attempts owing to repeat elections and parliamentary stalemate, a bill to legalize and publicly fund euthanasia cleared a first hurdle in Spain’s majority-left Parliament Tuesday, all but guaranteeing its passage later on this year.
For context, Spain’s post-Franco partisan duopoly of PSOE (left-of-center) and PP (right-of-center) has been shattered in recent years into ever-smaller pieces by upstart parties emerging on the establishment’s every crevice.
On the far-left, Podemos gave a platform for unreformed communists and young square occupiers to rail against post-crash austerity policies. The liberal-reformist Ciudadanos sought to tug the establishment towards ambitious cross-partisan compacts. More recently, the right-wing Vox erupted in defense of national unity and conservative values against regional separatism and left-liberal political correctness.
In turn, Podemos and Ciudadanos gave hope to large swathes of the electorate angsty at an establishment seen as unresponsive to the evolving demands of the economy and public opinion. Although with Podemos now propping up a coalition government with PSOE and Ciudadanos consigned to near irrelevance, the right is where disruption looms.
Vox looks indeed poised to deliver the largest-standing blow to the status quo, running athwart such unquestioned shibboleths of Spanish politics as ever-larger delegation of powers to the regions and the EU, and complacency vis-à-vis a rampant progressive consensus on social issues. The party has even dared to rail against the country’s aggressive and lightly scrutinized gender violence laws.
You’d think debating euthanasia in a secular society like Spain would involve trading technical, utilitarian arguments about the use of medicine to limit suffering. Regulating the practice, after all, amounts to a delicate balancing act between the sanctity of life and the avoidance of pain, between the private wishes of terminally ill patients and the bioethical standards we hold society to.
But this sort of “social engineering” is precisely what conservatives refuse to bear witness to, choosing instead to traffic in moralistic outrage and cynical self-righteousness. When one of the bill’s supporters cited lengthening life expectancies and treatment-resistant chronic pains as supporting evidence, a spokesman from the right-of-center PP blasted the bill’s authors for seeking to “save healthcare costs at the expense of the weak”.
His appeal to motive sounds all the more cynical since José Ignacio Echániz is a doctor himself who surely has a fair share of cases close to him, but it only goes to show the moralistic fever pitch the whole debate has reached. Long abiding by the rampant progressive consensus on social issues, PP’s recent turn towards social conservatism is seen by many as an opportunistic dog-whistle to the large numbers of its former voters who’ve switched to Vox.
So retrenched into moral outrage the bill’s opponents are that a Vox spokeswoman even compared the bill to the Nazi practice of “assisted homicide”, the first recorded instance of legal euthanasia in history. A number of the bill’s detractors have taken to calling it “the law of assisted suicide” or of “the right to kill”.
The bill certainly carries risks, but it is hardly the nihilistic eulogy to death its critics depict it as. Although much will depend on how specific cases are dealt with in practice, a number of prudent cop-outs are baked into the bill’s language to keep the practice rare. These are meant as guardrails against the excesses seen in other countries that pioneered legalization, most famously Holland, where large numbers of doctors who once supported the measure have since turned sharply against it.
With Spain’s bill, only those suffering of chronic pain or a terminal illness will be covered. The request ought to be filed in writing by none other than the patient himself and can be revoked at any point in the 32 days that need to lapse before the act is carried out. Perhaps most importantly, individual cases are overseen by external medical and administrative boards, and doctors and nurses can stay out altogether by “objecting”. In a recent poll, 34% said they would if presented with a case.
And yet instead of defending the bill’s prudent, targeted provisions, the left has chosen to meet the right’s fire with its own dose of moralistic outrage. Pablo Echenique, a spokesman of the far-left Podemos, called the bill’s opponents “unscrupulous”. Alluding to the notorious case of a famous author’s long-winded legal battle for assisted suicide, he hurled that “the right’s solution is that Ramón Sampedro can go f*** himself”.
The left has framed euthanasia as a matter of enhancing dignity and sovereignty over our individual lives, so this preachy moralism unsurprisingly finds wide echoes in public opinion. 58% of Spaniards firmly support some form of regulating the practice, while only 10% oppose it with equal certainty, a recent poll found. The figure among doctors is an astonishing 80%, although beware of the risk of self-selection from asking only doctors who’ve been exposed to euthanasia in one form of another instead of the wider profession.
The left’s self-righteous noise has eclipsed the well-intentioned, narrow-in-scope nature of its own bill, but it is the right that stands most to lose from the generalized descent into an all-out war of virtue.
The right’s path to the moral high ground runs through leveraging science not to meet pain with death, but to extend the blessings of a painless life to all. That public opinion and politicians are choosing the former is a frightening trend, but the only way to counter it is to promote palliative medicine, namely by availing terminally-ill and suffering patients of the latest pain-dulling medical breakthroughs, if need be by lowering regulatory barriers to the use of new treatments (cue the Trump administration’s right-to-try initiative).
The left professes to defend the right to live in dignity for all, but the irredeemable effect of its policies on euthanasia will be to promote a wry sense of whose lives are worth living and whose aren’t, and thus demean the efforts of those fighting every minute to stay alive. Spain’s conservatives are right to stand athwart progressives’ self-righteous defense of euthanasia, but a better case should be built on detail and principle, not cynical outrage.