Personal Autonomy and Euthanasia – Can something that inherently involves the action of another be a human right?

Those who advocate euthanasia often phrase the issue as the person’s “right to die with dignity”. This is a thoroughly misleading characterisation of the issue at hand and once the real claim that is being made has been unmasked, the error becomes readily apparent.

The idea is of course well intentioned, the proponent of euthanasia is, after all, trying to defend what they believe to be an inherent human right. Leaving aside the debate about how we can know what inherent human rights are (a question that the euthanasia advocate shies away from answering, in my experience) and disputes about how the law should reflect and protect them, it can help to briefly look at the actual event that is euthanasia and see if it actually qualifies as an inherent right of personal autonomy.

Well then, what is euthanasia? A quick internet search gives us “The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma”. This seems accurate enough to capture the term for present purposes.

So, to isolate the action that would be the alleged right: “the painless killing of a patient…”, is this, as an autonomous action, an intuitively inherent human right of the patient? It is, after all, not even their action.

How can an act that is not one’s own, even if requested, be a matter of personal autonomy? Human rights are about opposing the oppression of people’s freedom, about giving equal opportunities to all and not to unjustly discriminate and so on. They always revolve around permitting or promoting the free action of the individual’s whose rights are being advocated. In euthanasia, the action is question is undeniably not the action of the person whose rights are being defended, that is, the patient.

But, the patient is “suffering from an incurable and painful disease”!

That’s true, and we should by no means treat them as a lesser person or deny them their inherent rights because of this condition. But what is the actual personal act of volition, the thing which they would like to do or perform et cetera, that is being denied of them? The right to ask someone to kill them? Well they can do that if they like, you won’t be locked up for asking to be euthanased, but an individual’s personal autonomy extends no further than the boundaries of themselves. That is crucial to human rights.

Your rights allow you to act, think, speak and so on, however you so choose (to a degree), but a right cannot be something that necessarily requires the action of an autonomous other. Unless you advocate suicide as a human right, which is not strictly denied by either side of the euthanasia debate, then a person’s “right to die with dignity” is in actual fact a person’s “right to be killed by another if they want to.”

Is this really a case of personal autonomy? Euthanasia is inherently the action of another, it is never the action of the person whose life will be ended, that’s just what the word means, otherwise you have suicide or something else. Thus, whether or not there may be other points to suggest that we legalise euthanasia, it is clearly not an inherent human right and should not be argued as if it is from the stance of personal autonomy; it is not the person’s own action. Personal autonomy cannot extend further than what one is able to do freely, of their own accord.

Euthanasia always involves the addition of wills.

It requires the action of another free individual, an individual whose actions are simply not within the jurisdiction of the patient’s personal autonomy. The person who is “suffering from an incurable and painful disease” doesn’t have the “right to die with dignity” because they don’t have the right to demand an action of another person, regardless if that person would want to do it or not.

As soon as an event necessarily involves two free wills, it cannot be a matter of a single person’s right.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/gordonhj Gordon Hanzmann-Johnson

    “It requires the action of another free individual, an individual
    whose actions are simply not within the jurisdiction of the patient’s
    personal autonomy. The person who is “suffering from an incurable and
    painful disease” doesn’t have the “right to die with dignity” because
    they don’t have the right to demand an action of another person,
    regardless if that person would want to do it or not.”

    This sums up the article nicely. Simply, people don’t have the right to demand an action of another person,
    regardless if that person would want to do it or not.

    Similarly, nobody has the right to health care, as it involves the addition of wills. If somebody has a heart attack, they don’t have a right to be resuscitated, regardless if someone wants to or not. Anyway, it’d be morally wrong to resuscitate them, because that would intervene with their natural death.

  • Matt L

    Are human rights only bound to be be fulfilled insofar as one’s individual autonomy is able to fulfil? Where there is a right there is also a duty to be fulfilled, i.e. for the rights for “food, water and shelter” and the “right to education” it seems to fall to the state to actively provide such services and failure to do so has been viewed as an abrogation of human rights in the past i.e. Mao in the Great Chinese Famine and Jong-IL in the administration of North Korea. I think by using this criteria.
    The other issue is that currently Phillip Nitschke’s line for policy development is the legalisation and FDA approval of drugs such as barbiturates to provide greater possibility for suicide. Does the prescription of such drugs or even their sale over the counter constitute euthanasia? What degree of action constitutes active as opposed to passive?