Dealing With the Right to Die

Should someone have the right to die? For those who hold self-determination to be of paramount importance, it would seem logical that if you can pay taxes, vote and contribute to society, you should be allowed to choose whether or not you wish to continue living. For the most part, you can; suicide is not considered to be a crime in most countries and in no state in the US does it remain listed as a crime.

However, the real debate is about whether or not to legalise euthanasia. Euthanasia is the practice of deliberately ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering, and it differs to suicide in one vital way: it requires a third party to perform the act. It is a widely debated topic in bioethics and public opinion is divided as to whether it should be legal.

Euthanasia is classified as voluntary and non-voluntary. Non-voluntary euthanasia is where the patient has not given their consent; this is generally considered to be murder, except in the Netherlands, where physicians can administer non-voluntary euthanasia to infants as long as they can meet a strict set of criteria. Voluntary euthanasia is where the patient has requested to die, and is still illegal in many countries.

The Difference Between Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Euthanasia is illegal throughout the United States, but assisted suicide, or Physician Aid-in-Dying (PAD) is legal in three states: Washington, Oregon and Montana. The difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide is the person who administers the fatal drug. Euthanasia describes a situation in which the physician or a third party is responsible for doing so; assisted suicide is where the patient self-administers and can choose the time and place for this to occur.

There are strict requirements to legally perform assisted suicide. The patient must be suffering from a terminal illness with no more than six months to live and two doctors must confirm the diagnosis. The patient must be of sound mind when requesting a lethal dose of medication and make a second request after 15 days. Two witnesses, including one non-medical professional who is unrelated to the patient, must confirm the request.

The Right-to-Die Movement in the US

Assisted suicide was first given prominent coverage in the US with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan doctor who assisted over 40 suicides. His first case was in 1990, where he assisted a patient suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease to end her own life. At the time, there were no Michigan laws making suicide or medically-assisted suicide illegal, so although he was charged with murder, the charges were dropped. The trials helped to gain support for Kevorkian’s cause.

In 1998, he performed voluntary euthanasia on a 60-year-old man who was in the final stages of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He videotaped the euthanasia and challenged the authorities to stop him from carrying out what he termed ‘mercy killings’. He was charged with murder in 1999, convicted and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison.

Several state governments, including Texas and Washington, have been lobbied by patient rights groups asking for euthanasia to be made legal. At the present time, the most any state has done is to legalise ‘passive euthanasia’, or the withdrawal of life support.


Kahmen Lee is a freelance writer and human rights advocate. She occasionally writes on various legal issues for, law firms and human rights groups.

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