Thursday 9 August 2012

Is there a right to assisted suicide?

The debate about assisted suicide will go into another round with the UK's Supreme Court dealing with this issue soon. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has also recently criticise the German government in this area so this issue presents a serious headache for governments across Europe. It seems to me however that some of the arguments in favour of a right to end your life make little sense. 

Proponents of assisted suicide have changed tack over the last 5 years. As direct legal challenges to the ban of ethanasia have largely failed, campaigners have redirected their efforts. They now argue that the provision of human rights covers assisted suicide. The main thrust of their challenge regards the notion of rights and entitlements which, so the theory goes, includes the right to end your life. 

There is something odd about this position however. Rights do not exist in a vacuum. Rights, understood as a specific entitlement, require obligations of other parties. A right to employment for example is worthless unless it is sustained by somebody else's obligation to provide this employment. In other words, entitlements are reciprocal goods, that can only materialise if other people have a duty to carry out actions that ensure the fulfillment of the right. 

This reciprocal nature of entitlements applies to all rights, even though often the recipient of a reciprocal duty is left unspecified. The universal right to life for example carries no defined duty of others to ensure that the holder of the entitlement continues to live. What it does however is to forbid any actions by any person that would end prematurely anybody's life. 

This is where campaigners of assisted suicide blur the distinctions between universal unspecified rights and specific entitlements. Assisted suicide requires the direct intervention of a medical professional. Formulating a right to assisted suicide hence entails the need to institute an obligation of others to assist. In assisted suicide there is no unspecified non-reciprocal entitlement. What campaigners want is a right that carries with it the duty of medical personnel to assist. 

Looking over the judges' decision now it seems clear that this confusion runs through their verdict as well. Although they emphasise that the final decision about assisted suicide should be left to national parliaments, the line of argument once again blurs the distinction between unspecified, non-reciprocal rights and entitlements that carry a direct obligation of third persons. 

To argue, as the judges do, that people have been denied a right who have not been assisted in suicide, is to argue that there is an entitlement to assistance, which in turn means there must be a duty by some to assist. This assumes that there is an obligation of medical personnel to kill. I struggle to see any justification for such an obligation in any professional code of conduct or, indeed, in any law. 

Perhaps the real problem is that rights are not offering a suitable framework to discuss assisted suicide. There are situations in our lives where we find that we have indeed no entitlements or rights, without necessarily having been deprived of one. We simply do not have rights to all and everything. 

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