Bioethics Blogs

Can there be a “Right to Die?”

I generally give 5 reasons for opposing physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which is commonly recommended by its advocates by invoking the notion of a “right to die”:  it destroys the soul of medicine as the profession dedicated to healing; it deflects attention from palliative care; it rests on a very slippery slope; a right to die implies a reciprocal duty to kill; and the notion of a right to die itself is problematic if not incoherent.

I want to focus a bit on this last argument here.  I am most familiar with it from the work of Leon Kass, who expanded the argument in chapter 7 of his 2002 book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity.  Kass holds that a “right to die” is groundless, philosophically and legally.  I turn to his philosophic argument in this post.  I’ll address the legal argument next week.

In rejecting a right to die, Kass is not referring to the right to refuse treatment, which he regards indisputable, or a right to commit suicide “all by oneself,” which he regards debatable at best.  Rather, he construes a right to die “in its most radical intention as a right to become dead, by active means and if necessary with the assistance of others.”  He writes that a claim to a right to die is best understood as asserted not as a “liberty right” against those who would deny it, nor as a “welfare right” against people unwilling to provide the means, but as a demand against the ill fate of suffering or a debilitating condition—a sort of “tort claim against nature,” as it were.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.