‘The Right To Die’

Individual Freedom

Proponents of EAS frame it as the extension of a freedom. This is clearly misleading. Attempting to commit suicide is still hypothetically against customary law, a fact which Care for Life Jersey argues must change by the formal abolition of that customary law so as to destigmatise those with poor mental health who may fall into suicidal ideation. This law has fallen into desuetude however, and it is this fact which grants the pragmatic liberty for individuals to try to end their own lives, even as society does everything it can to discourage them from doing so. We are already practically autonomous when it comes to trying to determine the span of our own lives (though circumstance may frustrate us), and neither administration of euthanasia, nor physician assistance of suicide, extends that legal reality at all.

Since this freedom already exists, what is being asked for on the basis of a ‘right to die’ is not allowing people to do something, but giving them what they want. The argument for assisted suicide is that those people who cannot end their own lives have the right to be enabled to do so. With euthanasia it goes even further – the ‘right to die’ is the right to be killed by your physician. These are not ‘negative’ liberties; they are ‘positive’ rights: not freedoms, but entitlements.

A right to be assisted to do something however, is an entitlement that has to be guaranteed by society or the State. It is not a ‘right to die’: we will all die eventually. It is not even a right to end your own life. It is a right to be helped to kill yourself. This is the opposite of freedom: it is dependence.


A Right To Life, Not A Right To Die

It is argued by some campaigners for EAS that to have laws against those practices is contrary to human rights, as we have a human ‘right to die’.

The reality is that there is no ‘right to die’ in international human rights law. Not a single human rights statute gives a right to take one’s own life, or to be assisted in doing so. There are clear implications to the right to life however, which assisted suicide undermines.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of Diane Pretty v. United Kingdom that there is no ‘right to die’ in the sense of a right to end one’s own life or be assisted in doing so. This is not only true under the Article 2 right to life itself, which could not, without a distortion of language, be interpreted as conferring the diametrically opposite right. It is also true of no violation of the Article 3 prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment, or Articles 8 (right to respect for private life), 9 (freedom of conscience), or 14 (prohibition of discrimination), of the European Convention.

The European Court has however, found a positive obligation on State authorities “to take preventive operational measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk”, including those who are a suicide risk. This includes suicide prevention strategies, which assisted suicide undermines, as we see by the consequences of assisted suicide on suicide rates in Oregon.


False Autonomy

Moreover, the sorts of people potentially affected by assisted suicide are the very people with the least personal autonomy that allows them to make a truly ‘free’ choice: the terminally ill to begin with, and then (as in countries like Belgium and Holland), the elderly, the disabled, and the depressed. So far from enabling personal autonomy, assisted suicide is readily abused precisely due to a lack of it.

Anyone who has experienced serious illness, whether in themselves or in others, knows that those in that situation are most often at their least mentally free and independent. The debilitating effects of being sick tend to not only cloud the clarity of our desires, but significantly erode the strength of our will. The same is true of the tiredness of many in old age, those who are miserable and dejected, and those who struggle with disability. What EAS does is open up thousands of such people who exist in a personally compromised state to the possibility of being pressured into death.

Justifications of EAS on the basis of rights or individual freedom show a shallow understanding of both, and ignore that autonomy does not take place in a vacuum but in the context of a person’s physical and mental state.