Rights Discourse and Assisted Suicide

Posted: 29 Oct 2001


The debate surrounding the legalization of assisted suicide has been galvanized in recent years by reports of specific cases of assisted suicide and by impassioned pleas for legalization and assistance in suicide from individuals suffering in the throes of terminal or agonizing diseases. Media attention on criminal trials of individuals accused of assisting in a suicide has heightened public awareness of the issue. The constitutionality of criminal prohibitions on assisted suicide has been tested in various jurisdictions, and has recently been considered by the Supreme Courts of both the United States and Canada. Oregon voters passed a referendum in November 1994, providing for physician-assisted suicide under certain specified conditions. Attempts to introduce legislation to legalize assisted suicide in other jurisdictions have been galvanized by the success in Oregon. Individuals and organizations on both sides of the debate over the legalization of assisted suicide have been quick to frame their arguments in terms of rights. Attracted by the trumping and attention-getting effects of rights discourse and the powerful political impact of right-based arguments, proponents and opponents of assisted suicide have claimed a battery of different rights to support their various positions. This article enumerates different formulations of a right to suicide or assisted suicide. The discussion then moves from the kind of right claimed, to the basis of such a right, requiring a canvass of right-based arguments both in favor of and against the legalization of assisted suicide. Included, where appropriate, is a brief mention of any conceptual difficulties or limitations associated with the right at issue in the context of assisted suicide. The presentation of a multitude of conflicting and seemingly irresolvable right-based claims suggests the need to examine more closely the phenomenon of right-based arguments in the context of assisted suicide. The problems associated with such arguments are illuminated by looking at some of the critiques of rights which have gained popularity in recent years, and by discussing their applicability to the right-based arguments used in the assisted suicide debate. Such critiques suggest particular difficulties with right-based claims in this context. The aim of the article is not to suggest solutions to these difficulties or to propose an alternative debate, but to illustrate common and serious problems which may impede the future debate surrounding the legalization of assisted suicide and prevent its consensual resolution.

Suggested Citation

Lewis, Penney, Rights Discourse and Assisted Suicide. American Journal of Law & Medicine, Vol. 27, pp. 45-99, 2001 , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=288666

Penney Lewis (Contact Author)

King's College London ( email )

London, WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom
+44 20 7848 1103 (Phone)
+44 20 7848 2465 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/law/people/academic/plewis.aspx

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