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Should There Be a Legal Right to Die?


Photo Credit: Stock.Xchnge

by Dr. David Benatar

Just as people value having control over where they live, what occupation they have, whom they marry, and whether to have children, so people value having control over whether or not they continue living when the quality of their lives deteriorates. This is why the right to life and the right to die are not two rights, but two aspects or descriptions of the same right. The right to life is the right to decide whether or not one will continue living. The right to die is the right to decide whether or not one will die (when one could continue living). If a right to life were only a right to decide to continue living, and did not also include a right to decide not to continue living, then it would be a duty to live rather than a right to life.  The idea that we have a duty to continue living, irrespective of how bad our lives become, is an implausible one indeed.

The right to die requires clarification. It need not be a positive right to assistance in ending one’s life. Instead, it need only amount to a right not to be prevented from gaining assistance in ending one’s life. On this interpretation nobody has a duty to help others to die, but those who are willing to provide such help may do provide it.

Some might ask why assistance is necessary. If people want to die, why can they not just kill themselves? There are, in fact, good reasons, why assistance may be either necessary or desirable. In some situations people have become so weak or debilitated that they are quite literally unable to kill themselves. Even people who are able to kill themselves might prefer the assistance of others, and especially medically trained people. This is because killing oneself can be a messy, undignified or unduly painful act. The assistance of a caring, competent doctor, can enable people to die at a chosen time, in privacy and with dignity.

Killing people or helping them to kill themselves is usually wrong because continued life, we assume, is usually in people’s interests. It is extremely implausible, however, to think that continued life is always in people’s interests. The quality of life can fall to abysmal levels. While there can be reasonable disagreement about how poor the quality must be before it is not worth continuing, it is an indecent imposition on people – an unconscionable violation of their liberty – to force them to endure life that they have reasonably judged to be unacceptable. Accordingly it is incumbent on liberty-respecting states to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia for those whose lives have become a burden to them.



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