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Europe's Culture of Euthanasia

Modern technology has created the possibility of dramatically extending human life, but also a host of new practical and moral problems in the process. Extending life is costly both because the technology itself can be expensive, but also because it often is extremely labor intensive in countries where labor is not cheap.

In capitalist societies, the high price tag associated with these new ways to extend life means that the poor and even the middle class can be excluded from important new benefits. Humanitarian and moral concerns demand that this problem be addressed adequately. Free market critics, sensitive to the problem of excluding people from living a longer life simply because of their income, look to the welfare states of Northern Europe for guidance, because they do not use the price system to allocate healthcare.

But the welfare states' experience with extending life creates its own ethical problems that may be even more serious than those in more market-oriented societies. Faced with bloated fiscal deficits, today's newly cost-conscious welfare states are economizing in the use of expensive life-extending technologies. Moreover, as a result of policies allowing medically-assisted termination of human life, a “culture of euthanasia” has been gaining ground in some Northern European countries. Life-extending technologies are increasingly out of fashion, and terminating ill old people's lives is often extolled as caring, even “humanitarian.”

The confluence of economic considerations and the culture of euthanasia is nowhere as visible as in Holland. People may differ about the ethics of euthanasia itself. But a negative by-product of a policy which allows doctors to practice euthanasia is that the taboo against terminating human life diminishes. As a result, there is less resistance to ending patients' lives “for their own good,” with only the family's consent substituting for that of the patient, or even without the family's consent, and the practice gradually becomes socially acceptable.