The Right to Death?

Throughout various discussions in class about life-extending medications and the debate over the value of life-improving medications vs. life extending medications, I have come to realize that our society often tends to associate a longer life with better health. After all, the graphs we observed at the beginning of the year measured a country’s health by the average life span of its citizens.

Countries that have very low life expectancies (under 70) clearly have significant barriers to proper healthcare and medicine, since with today’s technologies and advanced medications there are known ways to fight disease and issues that lead to early death.

But when considering life expectancy in developed countries with advanced medicine, I think it is important to discuss whether extending someone’s life when they are very sick is always the best option. Currently, it is legal for patients to sign a document that establishes whether they want to continue life-sustaining treatments such as respirators or artificial nutrition when they are no longer able to communicate. However, this becomes a lot more complex in situations where the patient has not signed their decision in writing, as the family must make this decision and there is not always an agreement on what is best for the patient.

There are other cases in which patients are not in a complete vegetative state, and so there is no legal precedent for that patient to request to be let go, but extending a patients’ life might indeed be leading to more pain and suffering than if they were allowed to die. Is it morally wrong for a patient to ask a doctor to hasten their death if it will alleviate physical suffering or psychological degradation?

Since wanting to die or live under certain conditions is a very personal choice, it is difficult to establish laws on this issue. Furthermore, different family members might disagree on what is best for the health of their loved ones, and in these cases, who should have the right to decide whether one should continue to live?

Most will agree that life and health are human rights, but the questions of what quality of life and standard of health vary across individuals and across the globe. When reading about this topic, I came across this website that brings up a lot of fundamental questions on this issue that relate to human rights:

Who decides when pain or suffering is “unbearable” enough to prefer death?

Is alleviating pain to a terminally ill patient through euthanasia considered murder? Or is the opposite, forcing them to live in suffering, considered torture?

Who decides whether a person who is suffering from extreme dementia is content or suffering?

If people do have a right to end their lives, should this only be due to physical pain or can mental suffering such as agony from inability to function properly also a valid enough reason?

Which family members should have more decision power in whether a loved one’s life should be artificially sustained?

These issues are further complicated by the fact that different cultures and religions have completely different views on life, death, medicine, and individual vs. family rights. Although this is primarily a moral question, this issue plays a fundamental role in healthcare costs and technology and medicine development.

1 comment
  1. It is very interesting to think about the right to death after we have spent the entire semester speaking about the right to health, which in someways could be interpreted as the right to live. The right to end assisted living is very complicated, especially when the person is no longer capable of expressing his or her own wishes and views on the matter.

    After reading this post I heard of the recent suicide of Mary Kennedy and it made me think about how rights relate to the ability to end one’s life prematurely through means of suicide. As a society we somewhat accept stopping life support or choosing to not proceed with cancer treatment that is painful and the chances of survival are low, but our understanding of choosing to end one’s life when physically healthy but emotionally and mentally in much pain is very limited.

    Mary Kennedy seemed to have a good life on the surface with maybe the exception that her father died when she was quite young and her marriage had fallen apart. She was a mother of three, had many friends, and was involved in many charities. What many from the outside were not so aware of was that she had long been suffering from depression. In more recent years her condition became more publicly known through her self-medicating with alcohol and misuse of prescription drugs. (Read more about Mary Kennedy’s suicide at )

    Although suicide is not an uncommon cause of death, Mary’s suicide received a lot of publicity because of well-known, political family.

    The NIH states that, “Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem. In 2007, it was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 34,598 deaths.” (Read more about suicide rates at )

    Some of the publicity surrounding Mary’s death brought a very negative tone and misunderstanding to the serious mental health issues she was experiencing. KJ Dell’Antonia who writes for a parenting blog of the New York Times wrote, “I think it’s hard for many of us not to wonder how a mother could do that to her children,” in regards to Mary’s death. While I am sure Mary’s suicide will be unbelievably devastating and difficult for her children, I think it is wrong to think she did this to her children and not that it was the depression that did this to her. Should she be considered any more culpable or guilty for the sorrow that her children will experience due to her death than a mother that dies from any other disease where a complete cure is not yet known?

    Suicide was once considered a felony in many states and today professionals can intervene in suicide attempts and hold anyone they believe might harm themselves in supervised mental health facilities.

    It is easy to understand how these policies are well intended and save many people’s lives who might be suffering from temporary mental instability, but what about people who have had severe depression for a long time and truly do want to die to stop their suffering? Should they have the right to end their suffering?

    As Noa mentioned before, all circumstances surrounding death become more complicated by various cultural and religious beliefs on the matter.

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