October 31, 2014
As the world focuses on saving people from the Ebola epidemic, there is little focus on the push for the right to die with dignity. Generally, the right to die with dignity means the right to decide and choose how one should die. Recently, a new category has been suggested—physician-assisted suicide—which appears to be an uncertain blend of assisted suicide or active euthanasia undertaken by a licensed physician.
Later this year Canada could join the rank of nations that allow physician-assisted suicide as the Supreme Court of Canada hears an appeal case that argues Canada’s criminal laws deny the right to die with dignity. If Canada rules in favor of the right to die with dignity, Canada will follow the precedent set by the United States, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. Canada, however, is not the only country thinking of permitting physician-assisted suicide. Israel and England are among other nations debating on allowing the right to die with dignity. As this issue continues to be highly debated, the question becomes whether the right to die with dignity should become a universal right?
A human right, as defined by the United Nations, is an inherent right that all people are equally entitled to obtain. In looking at the right to die with dignity, there is a need to look at the right to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both state all human beings have an “inherent right to life.” The right to life is a liberty right, thus the right cannot be interfered by the government. As a codified liberty right, the right to life is an explicit and positive right that must be enforced. However, there are rights that are not explicit, such as the right to die with dignity. These rights are classified as moral rights. Since this discussion is about human rights, the definition of a moral right for all people is needed. According to noted philosopher Maurice Cranston, a moral right for all people is a right “that everybody has…not rights a man acquires by doing certain work…they belong to him simply because he is a human being.” However, to prove that a moral right for all people exists in order to protect that right, Cranston believes it is necessary to determine if the right is practical and if it is universal. In this two-step process, according to Cranston, two questions need to be asked. First, is the right practical to accomplish or is the right impossible? Second, is the right a universal right that pertains to everyone?
First, the right to die with dignity is not an impossible right to accomplish. Rather, the right to die with dignity is a right that can easily be protected by law. Cranston believes the right to die with dignity is similar to the right to life in that protecting the right, it “is not a very costly exercise” nor unreasonable. It would be very simple for governments and the international community to protect the right to die with dignity. Like the right to life, writes Cranston, the right to die with dignity requires “governments, and other people generally, to leave a man alone: let him live as he decides to live and enjoy what is his.”
Second, the right to decide how one should die is a right that belongs to every human being. Unlike economic rights, (such as the right to paid maternity leave or the right to a paid vacation,) which are rights only given to some, the right to die with dignity belongs to everyone. Everyone has the right to decide when and how he or she should die, even if people do not choose to exercise this right. The right to die with dignity is not a right given to certain people but a right that can be given to all. However, the counterargument is that only terminally ill people have this right; thus only a group of people, rather than every human being, has this right. In most states and countries that allow physician-assisted suicide, two doctors must determine a person is terminally ill and is competent to give consent. While it is true that only terminally ill people are allowed to exercise the right to die by physician-assisted suicide, if the right is looked as solely a right to choose how one dies, then that right is a right that belongs to every human. Suicide itself is not an action that is criminalized in most of the world; therefore, the decision to end one’s life is seen as an act that anyone can exercise. Therefore, the right to die with dignity, which is the right to choose how to die, is a right given to all.
Now that it is established that the right to die with dignity is reasonable right to protect and is a right that belongs to everyone, it must be determined if the right is of “paramount importance.” As Cranston explains, paramount importance is the notion that common sense cannot ignore the right. He gives the example of “Common sense knows that fire engines and ambulances are essential services, whereas amusements parks and holiday camps are not…” which suggests that a right must be one that humans should not be without. The right to die with dignity is such a right that humans should not be without. The right to choose how to die, unlike the economic right to a paid vacation, is one that is necessary to people. It is common sense to allow a person to choose how to live; therefore, it is common sense to allow a person to choose how to end their life.
Whether or not it is agreed that the right to die with dignity is a human right, the argument can be made that the right to die with dignity is a universal right that belongs to every human and is an important and reasonable right to protect. However, like most rights involving morals, the arguments for and against the right to die with dignity will continue until the international community creates a treaty that recognizes this universal and important right. Only time will tell.
Teresa Milligan is a 2L law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Events editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.