What assisted dying and the death penalty have in common

The cruel execution of Kenneth Smith has exposed the liberal hypocrisy over euthanasia.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics USA World

On 25 January, the US state of Alabama executed Kenneth Eugene Smith. Thirty-six years on from being convicted of the ‘murder for hire’ killing of Elizabeth Sennett, the 58-year-old finally ‘answered for his horrendous crimes’, as Alabama governor Kay Ivey put it.

The execution was rightly condemned by liberals of all stripes. Activists, campaigners, members of the US Supreme Court and even the United Nations re-stated their opposition to the death penalty.

They were especially outraged by the method of Smith’s killing. Instead of being administered a lethal injection, Smith was subject to ‘nitrogen hypoxia’. This meant he was strapped to a gurney and made to breathe nitrogen through a mask apparatus, depriving him of oxygen.

‘Just the idea of using gas for executions is an affront to our community’, said Mike Zoosman, the co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty. Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights joined in the condemnation of Smith’s execution. Four independent UN monitors accused the US government and Alabama of pushing ahead with an experimental execution technique that would ‘result in a painful and humiliating death’. Maya Foa, the joint executive director of human-rights campaign Reprieve, asked rhetorically: ‘How many more prisoners must die agonising deaths before we see executions for what they really are: the state violently taking a human life?’

Yet while these activists and politicos are right to condemn capital punishment, there’s more than a whiff of selective outrage on display here. After all, those now condemning this act of state-approved killing routinely turn a blind eye to another form of state-approved killing – namely, euthanasia and assisted suicide.

In fact, the methods of killing in cases of assisted suicide bare an uncanny resemblance to those used for state-ordered executions. In Canada alone, there were 13,000 assisted deaths by lethal injection last year. In the 2000s, Dignitas in Switzerland even experimented with helium hypoxia, a very similar method to that used to kill Smith. Dignitas’s efforts resulted in the botched killings of one man and three women, because of ill-fitting masks.

Even the length of time it takes to die is comparable between assisted suicide and the death penalty. But while critics have described the 22 minutes it took Smith to die in Alabama as ‘agonising’, they say nothing about the 40-plus minutes it takes individuals to die through assisted suicide in Oregon.

Those who oppose capital punishment but support euthanasia will say that there’s a vital difference between the two. People choose to die in cases of euthanasia, they say, whereas criminals don’t choose to be executed. But this is not the clincher they think it is. About 10 per cent of those who are executed in the US are what are known as ‘volunteers’, insofar as they choose not to appeal their sentences and accept their fate. According to the logic of pro-euthanasia advocates, executions would be more justified in these cases. This highlights the weakness of the ‘choice’ argument as a justification for state-approved killing.

If we are serious about opposing capital punishment, we need to oppose the premeditated killing of a human being by the state in all circumstances. That means opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide with just as much vehemence as opposing the death penalty.

Supporters of capital punishment and state-sponsored euthanasia share a similarly low view of human life. They both see certain lives as being devoid of all value. We need to stop being selective, and start opposing state-approved killing in all its forms.

Kevin Yuill is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sunderland and CEO of Humanists Against Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (HAASE).

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics USA World


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