Another argument made by advocates for the legalization of assisted suicide involves story-telling. More precisely, they provide anecdotal arguments – little vignettes of people they know or knew or knew of, who suffered terribly and for whom assistance in dying brought or would bring about final relief.
Anecdotal arguments are incredibly powerful. They are moving and inspire an emotional response. Anecdotal arguments have a way of putting the intellectual and the rube on common ground. Telling stories of a loved one creates a connection and brings the issue of assisted suicide down to a simpler and less philosophical level – virtually lacking of any objectivity.
A problem with an anecdotal argument is that it is the story of an event as seen through a single pair of eyes or through the eyes of a a group of people sharing the same emotional investment in the details. For example, “John” will dramatically recall the great suffering his father went through as he lay dying of brain cancer in the early 1970s. “John” will talk about of the family’s emotional roller-coaster ride as his father went through one aggressive treatment after another – each leaving him nauseous and weakened.
After his third treatment John’s graphic telling of the story has everyone sympathizing for the plight of his father. The pain and emotional trauma has all of the listeners longing for some sort of deliverance.
Those who use anecdotal stories are often convinced by a single, subjective experience. Based on that experience John now favors legalizing assisted suicide. And because his listeners joined John emotionally, they also find the “logic” compelling.
Unfortunately, anecdotal stories are designed for emotional appeal and are not designed for logic. As John tells the story of his father’s suffering he leaves out many facts that, if known, would like tell a different story. For example, consider the follows questions that were never addressed in John’s account of his father’s suffering:
- Was there other treatment for John’s father that would have been comparable in treating his cancer but less burdensome in its side-affects?
- Did the family pursue another objective second-opinion from a physician on how best to treat John’s father?
- Could any of the suffering have been because the doctor over-treated John’s father in his pursuit to not lose a patient?
- In the 1970s doctors determined the treatment and families went along with it. Since the middle 1970s medicine has changed and the patients are now informed of what each treatment is and what the consequences might be. The patient now chooses the treatment. If John’s father were alive today, facing the same brain cancer, it is very unlikely he would go through what he did in the 1970s. That being the case, how relevant is the 40 year old anecdotal story with so much having changed in medicine and in the approach to medical treatment?
- How many anecdotal stories are sufficient to justify forming public policy and how closely do the details of all anecdotal stories have to be to make public policy?
Granted, we are not machines. As we approach the end of life the emotional impact is undeniable. But emotion also clouds judgment. Aristotle once said, “The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case.” Anecdotal arguments appeal to emotions often to the neglect of the details and facts. The subjectivity of the anecdotal account supplants facts with emotion and prejudices the argument.
Anecdotal arguments are pitifully weak footings for public policy. They pay no attention to the affect of any resulting policy on the public as a whole. They fail to represent any objective standard for what is right and wrong. Anecdotal arguments seek to win the argument without having to provide the objective evidence to make the case.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Proverbs 14:12)