Life Without Parole as Death Without Dignity

36 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2020

See all articles by Brittany Deitch

Brittany Deitch

Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

Date Written: 2020


When prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences become terminally ill, may the state prohibit them from experiencing a dignified death?

Prisoners serving LWOP sentences know with practical certainty that they will die in prison. The ten U.S. jurisdictions that allow individuals with terminal illnesses to die through physician-assisted death ground their laws in human rights conceptions of autonomy and dignity. However, these jurisdictions categorically prohibit prisoners from enjoying this right to self-determination in end-of-life decisions. Although the blanket ban applies to all prisoners, it disproportionately impacts LWOP prisoners, many of whom will die from painful terminal illnesses. Through evaluation of the history and nature of LWOP sentences, the rationales for death with dignity laws, the constitutional rights of prisoners to receive and refuse medical treatment, and the major theories of punishment, this article argues that categorically prohibiting prisoners from exercising death with dignity statutory rights constitutes unjustified additional punishment.

Keywords: death with dignity, physician-assisted death, life without parole, punishment, sentencing, theories of punishment, justifications of punishment, prisoner rights, criminal law, criminal law theory

Suggested Citation

Deitch, Brittany, Life Without Parole as Death Without Dignity (2020). Alabama Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Brittany Deitch (Contact Author)

Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law ( email )

Villanova, PA 19085
United States

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