The Pitfalls of the Ethical Continuum and its Application to Medical Aid in Dying

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Shimon M. Glick


Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash


Religion has long provided guidance that has led to standards reflected in some aspects of medical practices and traditions. The recent bioethical literature addresses numerous new problems posed by advancing medical technology and demonstrates an erosion of standards rooted in religion and long widely accepted as almost axiomatic. In the deep soul-searching that pervades the publications on bioethics, several disturbing and dangerous trends neglect some basic lessons of philosophy, logic, and history. The bioethics discourse on medical aid in dying emphasizes similarity over previously recognized important distinguishing features. For example, it overplays a likeness between assistance in dying and the withdrawal of life-saving technology. In many bioethics’ topics, arguments based on a logical continuum are used to question the lines demarcating important moral differences.

l.     The Line Between Ethical and Not: Logic Based on Continuum

Careful case selection, often either end of a continuum, allows the tearing down or ridiculing of many rules and codes across most professions and fields of interest. This situation holds true for traffic laws as well as medical ethics guidelines. It is relatively simple for those who desire to attack a particular viewpoint by selecting a case that makes that position seem untenable.

In the ethics realm, good and bad medicine exist at opposite ends of an ethical continuum, with many practices lying in between.

For example, much of medical ethics exists between the Nazi criminal physicians and the most sainted nurse or physician. A gradual progression occurred over less than two decades from a utilitarian position that supported limited euthanasia for those with certain mental illnesses to genocide. German society embraced a utilitarian ethic in which the value of human life no longer was intrinsic but instrumental.[1] Many morally significant points on a continuum were then ignored as the misguided utilitarian policy rampantly continued.

A point in the continuum to distinguish between ethically justifiable and that which is not can be difficult to identify compared to the two extremes. This continuum is not unique to ethics but can be applied to almost any other aspect of human life and endeavor. Between a severely ill schizophrenic person and a superbly well-adjusted individual, there is a continuum of mental and psychological function. The existence of a continuum should not paralyze thinking and prevent us from drawing lines and identifying moral differences based on objective criteria as well as moral philosophy. Yet, by focusing on a continuum, many bioethicists use logic to disregard dividing lines between an "ethical" and an "unethical" act. Unfortunately, sometimes bioethicists draw revolutionary conclusions that would change the scope of medical practices which is accepted as ethical.

There are many examples of similar shifts on the continuum. Many authors argue for the ethical permissibility of abortion by pointing out that the human fetus is no different in various characteristics, one arguing it is as like an ape or chick as it is like a person,[2] and does not achieve unique human and individual characteristics until well into the first year of life.[3] While human fetuses arguably do not have certain distinctive qualities of personhood, most people shy away from the logical next conclusion: permitting infanticide. For example, Joshua Lederberg condemns infanticide, in the face of biological illogic, because of our emotional commitment to infants, to me, a relatively weak explanation. Sir Francis Crick suggests we might consider birth at two days of life in order to decide whether an infant is a "suitable" member of society.[4] Giublini and Minerva suggest that infanticide should be permissible since late pregnancy abortions are permissible, arguing there is no significant difference between a fetus just before birth and an infant just after birth.[5] Clearly the continuum approach would allow for subjective arguments in favor of later infanticide at other points many days post-birth. Years ago, with a cynical tone, I mentioned infanticide as a further step on the continuum beyond abortion, and I was rightly shouted down as being deliberately provocative to assert the logic would ever stretch so far. While it is not an accepted mainstream position, the movement in academic settings from widespread condemnation to limited possible acceptance of infanticide has taken place in an incredibly short time. Public opinion and medical opinion in these areas have shifted dramatically in a short time.

In another area, from a biological and chemical point of view, there is a continuum from man down to a single carbon atom. Yet, it would not seem logical to ignore the emotional differences, the meaning of personhood, or the moral distinction between killing an insect and killing a person.

ll.     A False Continuum: Medical Aid in Dying

I assert that there has been an erosion of ethical guidelines in recent years attributable to using continuums to camouflage important distinctions. James Rachels’ work on active and passive euthanasia, which contends that the two are ethically identical, exemplifies that logic.[6] He illustrates this thesis, using a continuum to compare different scenarios with like consequences as morally equivalent, by comparing the deliberate drowning of a child with a deliberate failure to rescue a drowning child when easily able to do so. The author's comparison proposes that since much of the medical profession has already made peace with withholding treatment in order to hasten death, consistency inexorably demands that we permit active euthanasia as well.[7]

When permission for active euthanasia was first introduced, it was limited exclusively to patients suffering severely from an intractable, incurable, and irreversible disease. These guidelines have been continuously eroded. There is now a substantial serious consideration for permitting active euthanasia of healthy elderly individuals who feel that they have completed their lives and are "tired of living."[8]

There are many moral and factual differences along the ethical continuum. In human life, there is a difference between a live baby and a fetus, between a viable fetus and one that is not, between a fetus and a zygote, and between a zygote and a sperm cell. Similarly, there is a difference between pulling a trigger to kill someone and not interfering in preventing his death, which is reprehensible though both may be. There is a difference between not resuscitating an 80-year-old man with cancer when his heart stops and injecting him with a fatal dose of potassium chloride. I argue that an overt act of taking life repels civilized human beings is to be commended and encouraged as the reverence for human life or even for just a moment of human life is one of the great contributions of our civilization.


As an orthodox Jew, I feel that divinely inspired guidelines that have stood the test of centuries shape my beliefs, and such guidelines contradict medical aid in dying. I cannot speak to the viewpoint of those who do not access religion in defining their moral stance, nor do I implicate them in the current bioethics' trends, as I am not aware of the personal role of religion in the lives of most such authors. While many nonreligious people have a firm philosophical grounding and oppose medical aid in dying, I suggest that in the absence of any religious or other absolute standards, developing logically defensible ethical guidelines may be challenging. At the least, religion may play a role in defining the points on the continuums that are ethically meaningful and refuting the trending beliefs that if the endpoint is the same, allowing different methods of arriving at that end are somehow ethically equal. The continuum of ways death may result does not negate analysis of whether death is brought about in ways that recognize the importance of life. The German philosopher Hans Jonas said, "It is a question whether without restoring the category of the sacred, the category most thoroughly destroyed by the scientific enlightenment, we can have an ethics able to cope with the extreme powers that we possess today and constantly increase and are compelled to use."[9]

While countries vary on the role of religion in policy, with many emphasizing freedoms of religion, a recent position paper released by a group of Jewish, Christian, and Moslem leaders (the three Abrahamic religions) suggested the need for agreement on the unique sanctity of human life.[10]

I would recommend that such a document serve as an example of consensus on critical foundational bioethical guidelines for democratic secular societies.


[1] Alexander L (1949) Medical science under dictatorship. New England Journal of Medicine, 241, p39-47 DOI10.1056/NEJM194907142410201

[2] Lederberg J. (1967) A geneticist looks at contraception and abortion, Annals of Internal Medicine 67, sup 2, 25-27. https:/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Editorial, Sociology: Logic of biology. Nature 220, 429 (1968)

[5] Giublini A Minerva F (2013) After-birth abortion: why should the baby live. J Med Ethics 39, 261-

[6] Rachels J (1975) Active and passive euthanasia. New England Journal of Medicine 292, 78-80

[7] Ibid.

[8] Cohen-Almagor R Euthanizing people who are "tired of life". in Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide-Lessons from Belgium. Ch 11 of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, Cambridge University Press pp173-187. 2017 and DOI;

[9] Hans Jonas, Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Tasks of Ethics, 1972, found as Chapter IX, Philosophical Essays, 1980.

[10] A position paper of the Abrahamic Monotheistic religions on matters concerning the end-of-life. Vatican Press 28 October 2019

Author Biography

Shimon M. Glick

MD, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Article Details

Religion, Bioethics, Medical Aid in Dying, MAiD, Moral Philosophy, Beliefs, Euthanasia, Continuum
How to Cite
Glick, S. (2021). The Pitfalls of the Ethical Continuum and its Application to Medical Aid in Dying. Voices in Bioethics, 7.