Euthanasia isn't a slippery slope | Emily Jackson ? (2023)

Calls for assisted dying, euthanasia, to be legalised are on the rise. While many do not think it is morally wrong for a dying person to voluntarily end their life, concerns about the knock-on consequences of legalisation often stand in the way of changing the law. The slippery slope argument stands in the way of assisted dying. Such arguments are often a rhetorical device, that use suffering patients as a means to an end and not as ends in themselves, writes Emily Jackson.

Slippery slope arguments are generally employed in order to argue against doing something, on the grounds that even if doing the thing itself might be unproblematic, doing it is likely to have unintended and undesirable consequences. A slippery slope claim is not concerned with whether a particular activity is right or wrong, but with whether it is in practice impossible to confine ourselves to that activity only.

There are two different reasons why a slope might be slippery. In a logical slippery slope argument, the claim is that that once we allow activity A, there is no non-arbitrary reason to stop there, and so we are logically committed to also allow activity B. An empirical slippery slope argument suggests that once activity A becomes familiar and routine, taking further steps towards activity B will begin to seem less problematic, and we will eventually find ourselves accepting activities B, C and D.

SUGGESTED READINGRationalising SuicideBy Michael Irwin Because the essence of a slippery slope claim is that once we have stepped onto the slope, we will not be able to stop ourselves from descending, an obvious response would be to advocate regulation that permits the innocuous thing at the top of slope, while prohibiting the undesirable things that lie towards the bottom the slope. At the heart of a slippery slope claim, therefore, is pessimism about our capacity to regulate effectively, and to locate and police boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

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At the heart of a slippery slope claim, therefore, is pessimism about our capacity to regulate effectively, and to locate and police boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable conduct.


Slippery slope arguments against assisted dying are not concerned with whether it would be legitimate for doctors to help their patients to die. Someone who invokes a slippery slope argument against assisted dying is making the consequentialist claim that even if there might be circumstances in which it would be acceptable for a doctor to help a patient to die – perhaps because she is in intolerable agony that cannot be relieved in any other way – legalising assisted dying would be dangerous because we would be unable to confine it to patients like this. Having taken that first step onto the slope, we would inevitably slide down it, and soon vulnerable patients’ lives would be being brought to an end when their depression is treatable, or because their beneficiaries have persuaded them that death is preferable to expensive residential care.

A slippery slope argument against assisted dying does not involve the claim that there is something wrong with doctors helping their patients to die. In practice, people who use slippery slope arguments against assisted dying often also believe that it is intrinsically wrong, but this is not the claim that they are making when they invoke the slippery slope. Rather, the slippery slope claim is that, even if we were to accept that doctors might sometimes act reasonably when they comply with a patient’s request for assisted dying, we should nevertheless prohibit it because, if assisted dying were to be legalised, it would be impossible to prevent abuse.

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In practice, despite being essentially empirical claims about the likelihood that doing A makes doing B more likely, slippery slope arguments are seldom proved or disproved by the evidence.


Slippery slope claims have been made in other areas of medical practice, to which the response has been regulation rather than complete prohibition. Take preimplantation testing (PGT) for monogenic disorders, for example. A slippery slope argument against PGT might involve saying that if we allow would-be parents to test their embryos for a fatal condition such as Tay-Sachs disease, we will be unable to prevent other would-be parents from using PGT to select beautiful, sporty and intelligent children. Aside from the fact that this is scientifically impossible, preimplantation genetic testing can be regulated, as it is in the UK, so that it is lawful to test embryos only if there is a significant risk that the child would be born with a serious genetic condition.

The question of whether legalising assisted dying makes involuntary killing or abuse of the elderly more likely could be said to be a straightforward empirical claim, which we could attempt to answer by looking at the experience of jurisdictions which have legalised assisted dying. Indeed, some opponents of assisted dying have sought to do this by pointing to evidence that the number of people opting for an assisted death tends to increase in the years following legalisation. This does not prove the existence of abuse, however, because the number of assisted deaths in the first year after legalisation does not necessarily represent the total number of eligible patients, so that any increase must mean that assisted deaths are taking place in more dubious circumstances. Instead, it is possible that the number of assisted deaths immediately after legalisation will be unusually low, given that fewer patients may be aware of it as an option.

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Opponents of legalisation also commonly cite data collected by the Dutch which appear to show that, in a small number of cases, patients’ lives are ended in the absence of an explicit request. On its own, evidence that 0.2 per cent of deaths in the Netherlands involve a patient’s life being ended in the absence of an explicit request does not prove that that percentage is higher than it was before legalisation. It might be, but in order to establish this, we would need evidence (which is unavailable) of the causes of deaths in the Netherlands before legalisation. We also do not know what percentage of patients’ lives are ended in the absence of an explicit request in countries where assisted dying is unlawful: this might be less than 0.2 per cent, or it might be more, and without this data, it is impossible to say that legalisation makes this practice more common.

We could also invoke a different sort of slippery slope claim to see why evidence that practice X occurs in a jurisdiction which has legalised assisted dying does not establish that legalisation has caused practice X to occur. Let us say that there is evidence that palliative care provision in Oregon improved after the legalisation of assisted suicide. This does not establish that legalisation caused palliative care provision to improve. We could use this evidence to show that there has not been a decline in the provision of palliative care after legalisation, but we could not use it to establish a causal relationship between lawful assisted dying and better palliative care.

In practice, despite being essentially empirical claims about the likelihood that doing A makes doing B more likely, slippery slope arguments are seldom proved or disproved by the evidence. The principal concern of people who make slippery slope arguments against assisted dying is generally not the effectiveness of regulation, but the intrinsic wrongness of assisted dying. Slippery slope arguments are in fact often a smokescreen, invoked by people who are fundamentally opposed to legalisation, in order to appeal to people who are not, but who do have concerns about the possibility of abuse.

Slippery slope arguments thus shift the focus of debate away from cases at the top of the slope – the person with full capacity, whose suffering is intolerable and cannot be relieved in any other way, who has made a voluntary decision to die – towards cases on which opinion is much more divided. Instead of arguing, on principled grounds, that it would be morally wrong to give the suffering patient access to the relief she seeks, the slippery slope proponent does not dispute that her case may be compelling, but instead argues that if we allow assisted dying in her case, we will inevitably end up with doctors euthanasing children and people with disabilities, and greedy families pressurising their frail, elderly relatives to choose death over inheritance-consuming care.

Slippery slope arguments are powerful rhetorical devices because no system of regulation is perfect. Their purpose is to foster and stoke doubts about whether any set of checks and balances could be guaranteed to prevent every single possible case of abuse. Just like the ‘precautionary principle’, slippery slope arguments tend to favour the status quo as the ‘safest’ option, when we cannot prove that taking a step into the unknown will be 100 per cent safe. What is missed by a slippery slope argument, therefore, is the cost of doing nothing, not only for patients who want an assisted death in order to relieve their unbearable suffering, but also for the wider group of patients who would be reassured and comforted by the knowledge that assisted dying would be an option, should their suffering become unbearable in the future.

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Those who oppose assisted dying in all circumstances, on principal, are in a minority. Public opinion surveys consistently indicate that a majority of the population believes that there are circumstances in which assisted dying should be lawful. Faced with an articulate patient who is seeking an assisted death in order to relieve her intolerable and unrelievable suffering, opponents of legalisation are not going to get very far by saying that giving her what she wants would be morally wrong. A more effective strategy is to sow doubts about whether we could ever be certain that a system of legalised assisted dying would be 100 per cent effective in preventing doctors from helping patients to die in more questionable circumstances.

I do not mean to suggest the use of slippery slope arguments is always entirely cynical: people who oppose assisted dying in principle are often also genuinely concerned about the risk of abuse. But if someone’s opposition to assisted dying is rooted in their belief that it is always morally wrong, there are no safeguards that could ever persuade them that it would be safe enough.


A blanket ban on assisted dying in order to protect the vulnerable involves disregarding the rights and interests of non-vulnerable patients.


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People who invoke slippery slopes are generally not interested in trying to craft a regulatory system which would enable patients whose circumstances lie at the top of the slope to have access to assisted dying. Rather, their point is that the only way to protect the vulnerable is to have a blanket ban on assisted dying, for non-vulnerable patients as well as for those who are genuinely vulnerable. We do not do this in other contexts – we do not prevent adult patients with capacity from refusing blood transfusions because we are worried about vulnerable patients being pressurised into making similar decisions against their wishes. Instead, we have a system in place in which a patient’s capacity can be assessed, and if there is any doubt about their capacity, or whether their apparent decision reflects their wishes, applications can be made to the courts to resolve the matter.

A blanket ban on assisted dying in order to protect the vulnerable involves disregarding the rights and interests of non-vulnerable patients. If we think we can protect the vulnerable – while also respecting the autonomy of non-vulnerable patients – in the context of refusals of life-prolonging treatment, it seems implausible to claim that it would be impossible to protect the vulnerable when it comes to assisted dying.

To say to someone who is suffering intolerably, with no prospect of relief, that she must be denied access to the assisted death she is seeking – not for her own good, but in order to protect other hypothetical vulnerable patients – is to treat her as a means to an end, rather than as an end in herself. If we accept (a) that there could be suffering so intolerable that assisted dying would be a legitimate response, and (b) that there is a risk of abuse, we owe it to the people who are suffering intolerably to at least try to devise a regulatory system capable of distinguishing between eligible and ineligible patients. Without proof that this is, in fact, impossible, slippery slope proponents are forcing identifiable individuals to endure unnecessary suffering in order to protect someone else.


What is the slippery slope argument in euthanasia? ›

Slippery slope arguments, which are regularly invoked in a variety of practical ethics contexts, make the claim that if some specific kind of action (such as euthanasia) is permitted, then society will be inexorably led (“down the slippery slope”) to permitting other actions that are morally wrong.

Is voluntary euthanasia the start of a slippery slope? ›

Voluntary euthanasia is the start of a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable.

What is slippery slope in medical ethics? ›

In general form, this argument says that if we allow something relatively harmless today, we may start a trend that results in something currently unthinkable becoming accepted. The slippery slope argument is used in discussing euthanasia and similar topics.

What do critics of voluntary active euthanasia argue? ›

Critics of the euthanasia typically argue that killing is always wrong, that nonvoluntary or involuntary euthanasia violates patient rights, or that physician-assisted suicide violates an obligation to do no harm.

What is the slippery slope in euthanasia palliative care? ›

As applied to the euthanasia debate, the slippery slope argument claims that the acceptance of certain practices, such as physician-assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, will invariably lead to the acceptance or practice of concepts which are currently deemed unacceptable, such as non-voluntary or involuntary ...

What is an example of slippery slope argument? ›

The slippery slope fallacy works by creating an assumed relationship between two or more events. For example, an arguer might claim that building new cell phone towers will disorient birds, which will lead to insect infestations due to a lack of predators for them.

What is the most humane form of euthanasia? ›

Barbiturates. One of the most humane methods of euthanasia is the administration of a barbiturate overdose either by the intravenous, intraperitoneal or intracardiac routes.

What is the legal argument for euthanasia? ›

One deontologic argument for euthanasia is that physicians have obligations to act in patients' best interests; thus, if patients determine that ending pain and suffering due to a terminal illness is in their best interest, then the physician has the obligation to honor that request.

Which form of euthanasia is widely considered morally impermissible? ›

By contrast, active (voluntary) euthanasia is said to be morally impermissible because it is claimed to require an unjustifiable intentional act of killing to satisfy the patient's request (cf., for example, Finnis, 1995; Keown in Jackson and Keown 2012).

What are the 4 elements of slippery slope? ›

(2011, 135) offer a better definition that states that slippery slope arguments have four components: (1) an ini- tial proposal for action, (2) an undesirable outcome, (3) a belief that allowing the action will lead to a reevaluation of the unde- sirable outcome in the future, and (4) the rejection of the initial ...

Why is slippery slope flawed? ›

When it comes to conceptual slippery slopes, a proposed slope is generally fallacious because it ignores the ability to differentiate between two things even if it's possible to transition from one of them to the other using a series of small steps.

What is the slippery slope of morality? ›

“Because individuals more readily justify small indiscretions as opposed to major ethical, moral disengagement is likely to occur when unethical behavior develops gradually over time rather than abruptly,” Welsh and colleagues write. “We call this the slippery-slope effect.”

What are the 2 objections to passive euthanasia? ›

Three arguments are considered. Firstly, an argument based on the (supposed) wrongness of euthanasia and the (supposed) permissibility of what is often called passive euthanasia. Secondly, the claim that passive euthanasia (so-called) cannot really be euthanasia because it does not cause death.

Is there a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia? ›

[t]he distinction between active and passive euthanasia is thought to be crucial for medical ethics. The idea is that it is permissible, at least in some cases, to withhold treatment and allow a patient to die, but it is never permissible to take direct action to kill a patient [3].

Is DNR passive euthanasia? ›

DNR for any untreatable or incurable condition before an established death process is a form of passive euthanasia.

What are the 4 most commonly used methods for euthanasia? ›

PHYSICAL METHODS. Physical methods of euthanasia include stunning, cervical dislocation, decapitation, gunshot, electrocution, decompression, use of a captive bolt, microwave irradiation, exsanguination, rapid freezing, and pithing.

What is the difference between euthanasia and palliative care at the end of life? ›

Background Today, euthanasia has become the option for terminally ill persons, in order to die with dignity. Palliative care on the other hand seeks to re-assure people with terminal or chronic ailments that they are still worthy of living.

What is the difference between euthanasia and palliative care? ›

In both cases, the goal is to relieve suffering. But many doctors who use palliative sedation say the bright line that distinguishes palliative sedation from euthanasia, including aid-in-dying, is intent.

Is the slippery slope really a fallacy? ›

In recent times, the Slippery Slope Argument (SSA) has been identified as a commonly encountered form of fallacious reasoning. Though the SSA can be used as a method of persuasion, that doesn't necessarily mean it's fallacious. In fact, SSAs are often solid forms of reasoning.

Do dogs feel pain when euthanized? ›

As the solution is injected, the animal loses consciousness and within minutes the heart and lungs stop functioning. Since the pet is not conscious, they do not feel anything. Most times, the animal passes away so smoothly, that it is difficult to tell until the veterinarian listens for absence of a heartbeat.

Is it ethical to euthanize? ›

As with humans, the only time animal euthanasia is justified is if the animal is suffering as the result of a debilitating disease with little hope of full recovery.

What breed of dog is most euthanized? ›

The Pit Bull is the most common dog breed (along with pit bull breed mixes) found in shelters in the United States. They are also the most abused, neglected, and the most euthanized.

What is one argument in favor of euthanasia? ›

Those who advocate euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide argue that in some circumstances living is worse than dying, that the pain and suffering caused by a terminal disease may make life so agonizing and unbearable that death may seem "an act of humanity" and physician-assisted suicide a way to die with dignity.

What are disadvantages of euthanasia? ›

Devalues some lives. Some people fear that allowing euthanasia sends the message, "it's better to be dead than sick or disabled". The subtext is that some lives are not worth living. Not only does this put the sick or disabled at risk, it also downgrades their status as human beings while they are alive.

Does the Hippocratic Oath support euthanasia? ›

The Hippocratic Oath takes a strong stand against euthanasia, requiring doctors to pledge never to “give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor…

Should active euthanasia be morally and legally permissible? ›

Due to a lack of moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia, both should be legalized. affected, regardless of the contrary urgings of moral rules or unbending moral principles.”3 Within this ethical framework, there are two different approaches to how to achieve the greatest good.

What philosophers agree with euthanasia? ›

Authors in antiquity indirectly talked about 'willing self-sacrifice' or 'intended death' or 'death brought about by an action of one's own. '1 Apart from Hippocrates, many philosophers—Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus and others—indirectly dealt with euthanasia.

What is an example of slippery slope not a fallacy? ›

If you don't do your homework, you'll fail the class. If you fail this class, you won't graduate from school. If you don't graduate, you won't get into college. If you don't attend a good college, you won't get a good job.

What is another word for slippery slope? ›

What is another word for slippery slope?
primrose pathgarden path
life of easepath of least resistance

What is an example of a strawman? ›

Presenting a fringe or extreme version of an opposing argument as the mainstream version of it: For example, one might create a straw man by claiming that all vegans are opposed to all forms of animal captivity, including pet ownership.

What is Rachel's view on euthanasia? ›

Rachels challenges the conventional view that passive euthanasia is permissible but active euthanasia is not. This view is endorsed by the American Medical Association in a 1973 statement. But Rachels holds that in some cases active euthanasia is morally preferable to passive euthanasia on utilitarian grounds.

Is active or passive euthanasia worse? ›

First of all, active euthanasia is in many cases more humane than passive euthanasia, Secondly, the conventional doctrine leads to decisions concerning life and death on irrelevant grounds. Thirdly, the doctrine rests on a distinction between killing and letting die that itself has no moral importance.

What is virtue ethics on euthanasia? ›

Following the recent revival of virtue ethics, a number of ethicists have discussed the moral problems surrounding euthanasia by drawing on concepts such as compassion, benevolence, death with dignity, mercy, and by inquiring whether euthanasia is compatible with human flourishing.

What is it called when a doctor kills a patient? ›

If a doctor is grossly negligent and the patient dies as a result, the doctor can be charged with manslaughter.

What is passive euthanasia USA? ›

Passive euthanasia is when a physician withholds or withdraws life-sustaining treatment, to allow the patient to die. The term "voluntary passive euthanasia" is no longer used.

Why should Passive euthanasia be allowed? ›

The reason why passive (voluntary) euthanasia is said to be morally permissible is that the patient is simply allowed to die because steps are not taken to preserve or prolong life.

Why do doctors push DNR? ›

Decision not to resuscitate (DNR/DNAR) is part of practice in elderly cancer care. Physicians issue such orders when a patient is suffering from irreversible disease and the patient's life is coming to an end.

What religion does not believe in DNR? ›

Patients with a strong religious background of Daoism may resist inevitable death and pursue life extension as long as possible, thus not consenting to DNR.

Does a DNR allow a natural death? ›

If they decide that limiting some treatments is best and if the family agrees, the physician can write an order, called an Allow Natural Death (AND)/Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) Order to say we will not use certain treatments.

What is the meaning of the slippery slope phenomenon? ›

A slippery slope fallacy occurs when someone makes a claim about a series of events that would lead to one major event, usually a bad event. In this fallacy, a person makes a claim that one event leads to another event and so on until we come to some awful conclusion.

What is the meaning of the phrase slippery slope? ›

noun. Britannica Dictionary definition of SLIPPERY SLOPE. [singular] : a process or series of events that is hard to stop or control once it has begun and that usually leads to worse or more difficult things. His behavior will lead him down a slippery slope to ruin.

What is the slippery slope of decision making? ›

The slippery slope refers to behavior in which individuals' participation in small unethical infractions leads them to engage in more egregious behaviors over time.

What are the 4 components of the slippery slope? ›

(2011, 135) offer a better definition that states that slippery slope arguments have four components: (1) an ini- tial proposal for action, (2) an undesirable outcome, (3) a belief that allowing the action will lead to a reevaluation of the unde- sirable outcome in the future, and (4) the rejection of the initial ...

What is another term for slippery slope? ›

What is another word for slippery slope?
primrose pathgarden path
life of easepath of least resistance

What is an example of slippery slope in ethics? ›

A new study finds that getting away with minor infractions ends up making it easier for people to justify bigger, more serious ethical violations. Over time, small ethical transgressions–like stealing pens from work–can put employees on the “slippery slope” of increasingly bad behavior.

Who coined the term slippery slope? ›

The metaphor of the "slippery slope" dates back at least to Cicero's essay Laelius de Amicitia (XII. 41).

Is slippery slope really a fallacy? ›

Slippery slope is not a logical fallacy. It is the common name for a logical fallacy that involves a slippery slope, but not an indication that all of them are fallacious. The argument is fallacious when it makes an unwarranted assumption that a minor event is likely to lead to a more serious one.

What ethical theory is euthanasia? ›

Deontology, the other moral theory, states that an action (for example, euthanasia) is good or bad for reasons other than the consequences of the action .

What is opposite of slippery slope? ›

A Sticky Slope.


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