Charles Lewis talks about the road autonomy might lead to, as Canada walks down the path of legalizing assisted suicide. Photo/Pixabay

Autonomy’s open road

  • June 9, 2016

Autonomy has evolved into a word of frightful power. Its meaning now goes beyond such independent actions as choosing a spouse, following a career path or adopting a style of fashion. It surpasses political views and for many has become a one-word mantra for a new religion called secularism, in which God is replaced by putting “me” at the centre of the universe. 

Autonomy has created havoc with the idea of a society built for the mutual benefit and support of all those who accept the notion of mutual dependence. A declaration of autonomy now says I need nothing from others except what my own needs may demand of society. It is used as a club to push society in ever-more radical directions to satisfy those who claim autonomy. 

This false adoration has become the key driver in making euthanasia legal. On one hand those who demand state-sanctioned killing say they have the right to end their lives because they are autonomous and control their bodies and fates. On the other hand, despite claiming autonomy, they insist the state must create a system of legalized killing to satisfy their selfish needs.

In May, Rabbi David Novak spoke at Holy Rosary parish in Toronto. He was part of a three-person forum looking at living a moral life in the age of legalized medical killing. He focused on the meaning of autonomy today.

To paraphrase his argument: from conception, to birth, to an individual’s development from a child to adult, in which one must learn to live among others in a way that maintains order and freedom, there is always a dependence. No one is born alone and only a rarefied few get through life solely on their own. As I understood his argument, no one can ever be utterly autonomous except for a lifelong hermit or the Abominable Snowman. 

Novak, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto as well as an esteemed author and essayist, also addressed the seemingly obscure reference in Genesis to Cain’s actions post-fratricide.

“Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.” 

Why would the world’s first outlaw want a to build a city?

Cain, who knew the consequences of violence firsthand, understood that to live a decent life in peace, forming a society would provide the best protection for the greatest number of people. The man considered the first known murderer was the one who realized that without rules of behaviour all would live in fear for their lives. 

Novak has been writing on this topic for years, long before the notion of autonomy was successfully being used to justify government-sponsored suicide.

“Foundational autonomy asserts instead that in the most fundamental practical sense I am my own creator, which means that at the core I am alone,” Novak wrote in 1997 for First Things magazine, in an article titled “Suicide Is Not A Private Choice.” 

“As such, I am free to do whatever I please. My nature is essentially amoral; it is co-equal with my power. Thus my privacy is myself; everyone else is in truth a stranger.”

There is something oddly hypocritical about those who claim autonomy but want the government to create a system of legalized euthanasia. As Novak pointed out, most anyone at any time can commit suicide without the help of the state. There are even web sites that will help someone check out when life becomes too much to bear. 

I have always been mystified how so many libertarians, who do not trust the government to pick up garbage, trust the authorities to create a system in which doctors get to murder their patients.

This is no esoteric discussion. As time goes on this claim of autonomy will only grow stronger, leading to such perversions as polygamy. But for now we need to worry about how much more liberal will the call extend to end pain and suffering through murder. The road is wide open.

It is as if the Good Samaritan decided the merciful action would have been to bash in the brains of the poor beaten man left for dead by the side of the road.

(Lewis, former religion editor for the National Post, is a Toronto writer.)

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