The Ethics of Human Rights (18): A Right to End Your Life

There’s currently some controversy over the Swiss Dignitas clinic where people can receive help in their attempt to end their own lives.  This is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding “Doctor Death”, Jack Kevorkian, in the U.S. some time ago, and the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.

The issue of assisted suicide or euthanasia usually arises in discussions on terminal illnes and suffering, but it is part of the wider problem of self-determination: do human beings have the right to determine and chose the time and the method of their own death, irrespective of health issues? And do other people have a right to assist them if they can’t execute their will themselves?

I’ll focus on the first question here, and I’ll avoid the legal issues for the time being, apart from this: in international human rights law, there is no right to end your life, hence no right to suicide, assisted or not, and hence no right to euthanasia (the differences between assisted suicide and euthanasia are negligable according to me).

Should there be such a right? I don’t know. I certainly support the moral right, based on some arguments which I’ll mention below. A legal right would remove some of the prohibitions on assisted suicide and euthanasia in some countries. In such countries, people have to travel abroad – to Switzerland for example – to end their lives, at least if they want to do it in a painless and guaranteed way. This means that there is discrimination: rich people have a painless way out (the Swiss ask a lot of money), whereas other people have to use painful or riskier methods or – worse – have to continue their lives involuntarily if their (medical) circumstances don’t make it possible for them to take matters into their own hands.

Why should there be a moral right to end your life? We own our own body. Our body is part of our private property. It is something that is ours; it is the thing par excellence that is our own. It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning our body means that we are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of our body; they should not use it, hurt it or force us to use it in a certain way. This underpins the security rights such as the right to life, the right to bodily integrity, and the prohibition of torture and slavery. But it also implies the right to self-determination, and therefore, the right to die. We should therefore be able to cimmit suicide without interference, at least as long as we are able to determine our will independently, and as long as our suicide doesn’t harm other people’s rights (e.g. if we throw ourselves in front of a moving car, or if we believe that our suicide leads us to heaven on the condition that we take a few infidels along with us in the grave).

17 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (18): A Right to End Your Life”

  1. Yes, suicide is a right. It matters not whether some legal entity or some declaration refuses to acknowledge said right. This, of course, has to do with self determination and ownership of your own body as you point out in your last paragraph, which by the way is also a good argument in support of abortion rights.


    1. I don’t know if it doesn’t matter whether the right is legally recognized or not. If it’s not legally recognized, there may be penalties on assisted suicide, like in the UK and much of the US. I personally think such penalties are wrong.


      1. Well, of course, I should have mentioned that there are two separate rights in play here: the right to suicide, and the right to assist someone to commit suicide. Both should be legally recognized in my view.


  2. Well, yes, it has real world implications whether the right is legally recognized. My point was that whether it was in fact legally recognized has no bearing on the fact that is a right. So it’s a right no matter what some legal entity proclaims. And I also agree with you on the right to assist, though that is a slightly more strenuous argument to make.


  3. Needless to say, I disagree. I think you explain it rather well yourself: “It is not common to several people and it cannot be given away. It cannot even be shared or communicated. It is the most private thing there is. Owning our body means that we are the master of it. Other people have no say in the use of our body; they should not use it, hurt it or force us to use it in a certain way.”

    If what you say is true, then it is always true. I don’t see the validity of your statements being a function of time.

    No one, not even living adults, have the right to live inside you or by your means. So even if you construe fetuses to being human beings (which you should not), they exist within the womb only by permission, not by right.

    As for organ trade, perhaps you heard of the recent news coming out of New Jersey, USA? Over 40 people were arrested on corruption charges, including some involved in the black market for organs. From a New York Times article about it:

    “Another man in Brooklyn, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum, was accused of enticing vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then selling the organ for $160,000. Mr. Dwek pretended to be soliciting a kidney on behalf of someone and Mr. Rosenbaum said that he had been in business of buying organs for years, according to the complaint.”

    Your arguments poor people will coerced into selling their organs if organ trading became legal is fairly moot: It’s already occurring in the black market. Is Mr. Rosenbaum’s $150,000 profit over a $10,000 donation morally acceptable? Is this a cost you’re willing to bear for the sake of keeping organ trade illegal?

    As it stands, in addition to being coerced to sell their organs, the poor lack access to organs because they are scarce. A legitimate and regulated market for organs would fix both of these problems and would follow your principle that we are the masters of our bodies.


  4. Euthanasia should definately be viewed as a human right, and not just seen through emotive eyes. Its despicable that people who believe in burning bushes, and birth giving virgins should dictate how people “live”. Why should someone have to go to an impersonal foreign clinic, or try for some diy solution? Why are people treated worse than cats and dogs? Hopefully we are entering a more enlightened era.


  5. Were does it say that a person shouldt shuffer to his /her death! A human rigth
    is to chosen your on destiny without pain or suffereing, and die with dignity, every human has RIGHT choose, like to vote or how / his going to spent his/or her
    life, remember that’s there’s we are taking about not OURS!! FREEDOM FOR EVERYONONE! NO ONE LIKES PAIN. please let people die with diginity!!!


  6. When I am no longer in a position to care for myself and as I have no family, I reserve the right to end my life. This is not debateable. It is high time this issue was recognised and accepted. I am no longer able to work due to a medical condition, do not enjoy the company of other human beings and as such might be referred to as a loner.


  7. Giving individuals the right to end their life in a dignified, moral and painless way, for whatever reason, will save the country billions of dollars annually, and it will also generate millions more, in the form of a new market. As voters we should write to our government representatives to introduce a bill that will give citizens such right.


  8. Certain people really deserve the right to choose to legally and humanely terminate their existence because they were not able to stop the birth and the maternal agent could not get an abortion and the product of conception was forced to “live” an existence of hell and no one has ever cared or head a clue. It is terrible to be forced to go living an alienated, miserable life (especially if it is mental/permanent psychological and brain damage. In order for this minority of people to be included in the right to die by self choice and humanely as a right tantamount to the right to life the law should be written for all people and there should be no reason from anyone for the existence of such a law unless the reason were lack of compassion, having a trait of sadism or punishment, or blaming the victim (the baby/adult born into destructive circumstances ultimately not to be overcome. Furthermore, it should be available for anyone with any reason they have.


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