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Defending life
from conception to natural death



Life must be protected – even on the battlefield

Posted by Anthony Ozimic on 13 November 2015
Remembrance Day Poppy

This week we marked Remembrance Day, where we pay tribute to all those who have given their lives in military conflicts.

The extraordinary circumstances of war have led to the question: is euthanasia on the battlefield ethically justified, morally excusable, or legally possible? To answer this question, we should first consider the case-studies and arguments presented by those who answer one or more of those questions in the affirmative.


During his exile on the island of St Helena after the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was questioned by one of his visitors about the moral rectitude of some of his actions as a general in Egypt. He recalled:

  • "Three or four men of the army had the plague: they could not have lived twenty-four hours; I was about to march; I consulted Desgenettes [Napoleon's physician] as to the means of removing them; he said that it must be attended with some risk of infection and would be useless to them, as they were past recovery. I then recommended him to give them a dose of opium rather than leave them to the mercy of the Turks. To which he replied, like an honest man, that his profession was to cure and not to kill; and the men were left to their fate. Perhaps he was right, though I requested for them what I should, under similar circumstances, have wished my best friend to have done for myself. I have often thought since on that point of moral[s], and have conversed upon it with others, and I believe, the point being thoroughly considered, that it is better to let a man terminate his destiny, be it whatsoever it may. I judged so afterwards in the case of my friend [General] Duroc, who, when his bowels were falling out before my eyes, repeatedly cried to me to have him put out of his misery. I told him that I commiserated his fate, but that there was no remedy; we must endure with patience to the end."
    (The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, W.H. Ireland, London, 1928)

Lawrence of Arabia & Dirk Bogarde

In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his famous reflection on the Arab revolt during the First World War, T. E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’, pictured) recorded that:

  • “the Turks did not take Arab prisoners. Indeed, they used to kill them horribly; so in mercy, we were finishing those of our badly wounded who would have to be left helpless on abandoned ground”.

Dirk Bogarde, the famous British actor, served as an army officer in the Second World War. In later life, he claimed that:

  • “During the war I saw more wounded men being "taken care of" than I saw being rescued. Because sometimes you were too far from a dressing station, sometimes you couldn't get them out. And they were pumping blood or whatever; they were in such a wreck, the only thing to do was to shoot them.”

Battlefield complications

We can acknowledge safely that the some of the conditions of war are more complicated than the usual circumstances of peacetime. In the context of the treatment of wounded combatants, these include the frequency of severe injuries, acute shortages of medical resources, the immediate need for large-scale life-and-death decision-making, and of course the dangers of warfare itself.

Some ethicists argue that these circumstances make battlefield euthanasia if not ethically justifiable, at least morally excusable. However, even some of those same ethicists admit, as Professor David Perry does, that:

  • “The general rule against directly and intentionally killing anyone who isn’t a threat is so important, and so difficult to uphold consistently amid the psychological terrors and hatreds that war induces, that it seems unwise to stipulate any exceptions to permit even justified cases of mercy-killing.”

So we can see that even the exigencies of warfare do not negate the need to uphold the right to life as inviolable and inalienable – something we cannot take from others nor give away from ourselves.

Universal right to life

Also, if battlefield euthanasia were to be permitted, there would soon be those arguing that euthanasia among civilians would be even more morally justified because peacetime conditions would make it easier for decision-makers to come to the supposedly 'right' judgment about which cases of euthanasia to approve or not. There is always this kind of logical 'slippery slope' once a concession from an ethical principle is allowed for a so-called 'hard case'. The slippery slope of euthanasia, moreover, is not merely logical but empirical, as is shown in the chilling evidence from The Netherlands.

Thankfully the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate killing of wounded combatants. We can also be grateful that the right to life is upheld by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and other legally-binding international human rights instruments. We must work to ensure that every member of the human family – born or unborn, soldier or civilian, healthy or sick – in practice receives that protection. To find out how, contact Isaac Spencer on 020 7820 3147 or at

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