It is argued by some campaigners for assisted suicide that to have laws against assisted suicide 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.
A Right To Life, Not A Right To Die
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.
Some people who favour assisted suicide do so because they believe that legalising assisted suicide is a matter of liberty. Individual freedoms, they argue, dictates that assisted suicide should not be forbidden by the State.
The problem with this is that assistance in suicide is not a liberty, but an entitlement. We already have the practical freedom to end our own lives without the Government punishing us for doing so. This has been the case since 2006, just as in the UK, it has been since 1961.
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.
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 assisted suicide does is open up thousands of such people who exist in a personally compromised state to the possibility of being pressured into death.
Whatever the issue of assisted suicide is about, it is not about individual liberty.