Last month, a minor in Belgium became the first to receive a medically assisted death through euthanasia since the country made the practice legal for children in 2014, renewing the conversation on the issue of assisted death and euthanasia.1 Belgium is the second country to legalize euthanasia and the only country that currently allows minors of any age access to euthanasia.2 The Netherlands and Luxembourg also allow euthanasia and assisted suicide, Canada allows assisted suicide, Switzerland allows assisted suicide when the person assisting is acting unselfishly, and Colombia allows euthanasia. In the U.S., only five states have legalized physician-assisted death: Washington, Oregon, California, Vermont, and Montana.3 The countries and U.S. states that allow euthanasia and/or assisted death have certain requirements as to the level of suffering or the condition of the person before someone can utilize these procedures.4 For instance, in the Netherlands the person must have unbearable suffering for which there is no hope of improvement. In the five applicable U.S. states, the person must be terminally ill because these states only permit assisted dying.5 Opponents to these measures argue that they endanger vulnerable persons, compromise family and doctor-patient relationships, and that to classify a group of people as “legally eligible to be killed” jeopardizes their dignity and denies them equality under the law.6 On the other hand, proponents argue that these measures protect personal autonomy and that people have the right to choose if assisted death is what they want, rather than being forced to live longer in suffering.
Take for instance the highly publicized circumstances of Brittany Maynard who, after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, chose to uproot herself and her family from California to Oregon because California had not yet legalized assisted-death and she wanted to “die with dignity,” rather than face months of pain and suffering before dying.7 Doctors told her the only treatment for her terminal cancer was full brain radiation, the side effects of which include the singeing of hair on the scalp and first degree burns. Additionally, because the rest of her body was young and healthy, she might live long enough to endure complications such as morphine-resistant pain, personality changes, and loss of motor and verbal skills.8 Regarding her decision she stated, “Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important. It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”9
The right to life has long been recognized as a fundamental human right and so why not too the right to die a death of your choosing in the face of a painful terminal illness? Shouldn’t this right be as sacred as other rights we accept much more readily? What could be a more clear exercise of personal autonomy than the right to choose death under such circumstances rather than be forced to endure months or maybe even years of additional pain? Admittedly, in the case of children the way is much less clear because the law and society accept that children are less able to make decisions of such magnitude. However, in cases where mentally capable adults want to make this choice, it should be exactly that – their choice. While it appears that the U.S. is a long way off from universally legalizing assisted death and euthanasia procedures, it seems that the national conversation is trending in that direction as more people like Brittany Maynard and the minor in Belgium’s stories spark international interest and educate the national debate.
- Yves Logghe, First Child Dies by Lethal Euthanasia in Belgium, CBS NEWS (Sep. 19, 2016), http://www.cbsnews.com/news/child-dies-by-euthanasia-in-belgium-where-assistance-in-dying-is-legal/ [http://perma.cc/6L3G-7NY7]. ↩
- Ivette Feliciano, Belgium’s Euthanasia Law Gives Terminally Ill Children the Right to Die, PBS NEWSHOUR (Jan. 17, 2015), http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/belgium-terminally-ill-children-right-die/ [http://perma.cc/SD3S-4VU3]. ↩
- Penney Lewis, Assisted Dying: What Does the Law in Different Countries Say?, BBC NEWS (Oct. 6, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-34445715 [http://perma.cc/PZ9P-DDZJ]. ↩
- See id. ↩
- See id. ↩
- Ryan T. Anderson, Physician-Assisted Suicide is Always Wrong, NEWSWEEK (March 26, 2015), http://www.newsweek.com/physician-assisted-suicide-always-wrong-317042. ↩
- Brittany Maynard, My Right to Death with Dignity at 29, CNN (Nov. 2, 2014), http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/ [http://perma.cc/7588-TRVB]. ↩
- See id. ↩
- Id. ↩