The Right to Life

Does ones right to life extend to one’s right to chose when one’s life ends?  This is a question that arises when the emotive and somewhat difficult question of assisted suicide arises.

In England and Wales aiding or abetting someone’s suicide can result in criminal prosecution and an eventual custodial sentence of up to fourteen years.  There are large organisations campaigning on both sides of the fence, both with a fairly large amount of support.

The courts are asked on a semi-regular basis for their guidance and often their support in assisted suicide.  The most recent case that has reached the courts is that of Debbie Purdy.  Mrs Purdy was seeking the courts advice on where her husband stood legally if he travelled to Switzerland with her so that she could end her life.  The court ruled that, in accordance with a precedent set in October, that Mrs Purdy’s husband could face criminal prosecution on his return to the United Kingdom.

In October High Court judges ruled that a code of practice issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), along with the general safeguards of administrative law were adequate and satisfied Human Rights Laws.  However, the DPP does not seem to be in a hurry to prosecute people on their return from Switzerland as not one of the 101 relatives who have returned to the UK after going to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland have been prosecuted.  Could this initself be enough to argue a defence?

In 2001 Diane Pretty, who suffered from motor neurons disease, failed to get immunity from prosecution for her husband if he helped her to die in the UK.

Euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is one of those tricky moral debates.  Personally, I’m not entirely sure on where I stand on the whole issue.  On the one-hand we allow our loved ones to die in pain and suffering, with horrible illnesses, but have our pets ‘put to sleep’ if  they lose their quality of life.  However, legalising Euthanasia can open it up for abuse by greedy relatives who want to get their hands on their relatives estate.  Now, the law could be framed in a way to minimise this risk, but the risk would still be there and the chances of prosecution would be much lower than they currently stand (as there would be the added hurdle to get across for the prosecution in order to secure a conviction for Murder).

The argument that the right to life extends also to a right to choose when life ends is an interesting one and certainly pushing the boundaries of interpretation.  The UK court have not accepted the argument and I can see their reasons for not doing so: above all accepting such an interpretation would undermine well established UK Law, and it is the job of the courts to uphold the law.  However, is that a good enough reason not to accept this interpretation?  The courts are there to uphold the law, but the Human Rights Act also gives them a duty to uphold that law in accordance with the Articles of the European Convention contained within the Human Rights Act.  So, arguing that to rule in favour of something would undermine the law of the UK is not really as solid an argument as it first appears.  However, I digress into another issue.  I genuinely cannot see how the right to life, in the way the ECHR is framed, can possibly be interpreted to also mean the right to choose when one dies.  The provisions in Human Rights law (not just limited to the ECHR) is there to prevent citizens having their lives taken away by the state extra-judicially (something which we have seen in the past and continue to see in some countries today).  In some cases this right to life has been extended to include the abolition of capital punishment, further protecting the citizen and removing the state’s right to take a citizens life through the judicial process.  The interpretation, in my view, is just not tenable and it makes perfect sense that it has not been accepted by the courts.

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One thought on “The Right to Life

  1. If you keep legislation aside for the moment, and concentrate purely on the moral aspects of the “right to life,” the right exists to safeguard the individual from the State; it is not an obligation on the individual, but on the State. And that is how it has to be interpreted. Passing laws that criminalize the right of an individual to take is own life is thus against commonsense. But in a world where synthetic rights – everything from the right to livelihood, to the right to a good home, to the right to leisure, to the right to a trip to Disney Land – rule, its not a surprise that the real meaning of “right” has been lost.

    Now, how far would go in “enforcing” the right to life? Consider the case of a risky medical procedure where the chances of dying are greater than that of living, but the individual is willing to take the risk because he suffers from some kind of terminal illness. Would the State intrude and disallow the individual from undergoing he procedure? He could die in the OR. The fact, however, is that the State does indulge in activities of a similar nature – banning “harmful” food items, smoking and toys, regulating the health care sector etc etc. No wonder scores of people die because of government bodies like the FDA keeping medicines off the market, trying to “protect” people.

    About greedy relatives, that’s a technical matter, and if people really wanted to, a system that involves a minimum of harassment can surely be devised to see to it that people are not murdered in the name of euthanasia; I can conceive of a three member panel that doesn’t have the authority to override an individual’s decision to die, but exists merely to sign on a paper attesting to the fact that the decision is purely a voluntary one. Then living wills are legitimate documents to perform a similar function.

    But then, legislation exists to make simple things complicated and to curb freedom rather than to protect it. And then people are intolerant too – the excessively religious ones, as well as the egalitarian liberals; they simply cannot tolerate other people’s decisions, or freedom.

    That’s why I am not surprised that people still debate this topic.

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