The Right to Die

The Times, May 10th 2006, reported a survey which showed that three quarters of the medical profession opposed a change in the laws affecting euthanasia, even for the small number of patients who are terminally ill and in considerable suffering. Among doctors who specialise in giving palliative care, care designed to relieve suffering, 9 out of 10 are opposed to the proposed change that the UK Government is making. The Government wants to give the right for someone who is terminally ill and in considerable distress to ask for and be given a lethal injection. British citizens who want physician assisted suicide must travel to countries such as Switzerland, without the assistance of a friend or a doctor in this country as such helpers could be prosecuted.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Conner of the Roman Catholic Church for England and Wales, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, wrote a joint letter to The Times expressing their concern about the proposal. In this letter and in public broadcasts they argued that physician assisted suicide is not simply a matter of personal autonomy because it has implications for others. The law should not be determined by a few extreme cases as it influences culture and social attitudes that affect the many, not just the few extreme examples. Many disability groups have also been opposed to the change. Supporters of the Bill have argued that it gives people the possibility to die with dignity and argue that the extreme suffering of the few should not be ignored because of some greater common good.

This debate crystallises an important difference in the idea of dignity. Those arguing in favour of assisted suicide build their case on the idea that freedom is right at the heart of dignity. Our right to choose is the key consideration in what makes us human. Church groups and others have a different perspective on dignity. Dignity for them is related to the wider community in which the individual is situated and the rights that an individual has, has corresponding duties for others which also bare on dignity. For many Christians, human dignity comes from the fact that humans are created by God with a specific purpose. Autonomy is important, but it is not the core determining feature of dignity. This can be expressed in a more secular way if, at the humanitarian, core, there is something sacred by virtue to the fundamental nature of what it means to be human, apart from free action.
Human rights are based on the dignity of human beings (see the Universal declaration of human rights) but where people have different views on what dignity itself is based on, differences emerge in how human rights are applied. The right to die illustrates this ambiguity.

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