As libertarians, it requires virtually no provocation for us to proclaim support for the liberties of all humans. Rights to life, property, and expression are values many of us consider as natural and logical as the law of gravity, and we’d defend our positions in a heartbeat to anyone who might suggest that we not be afforded these freedoms. Not heard often, however, is an argument for perhaps a more complicated liberty that is deserving of deeper contemplation and support in the movement: the right to choose one’s death.
Euthanasia, from the Greek “good death,” along with “do not resuscitate” orders are bioethical issues that cut to the core of the human experience but are rarely considered by libertarians. Patrick Henry unknowingly made a perfect summary of the case for euthanasia in his famous proclamation, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” We focus so much on the call for these liberties that the second half is frequently forgotten. Yet, does it not seem rational to assume that when an individual has reached the point in his or her life where they are no longer truly free — be it due to a crippling terminal illness or mental deterioration that takes away their ability to care for themselves — that they have the right to choose to no longer live that unfree or otherwise constrained life?
A libertarian favorite, John Stewart Mill in On Liberty supports the bare-bones rationality behind the argument for the right to death when he states “[i]n the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The individual is wholly free to make choices or commit actions, Mill’s harm principle proclaims, that may be unpopular or thought of as self-damaging, provided that these actions do not infringe on the liberties of others. It is a concept used regularly to justify individual decisions and actions such as smoking, choosing unhealthy diets, engaging in dangerous sports or activities, and so on. Extrapolating from this, the individual also holds ultimate decision making power when it comes to the termination of a life they find no longer fulfilling or desirable due to incurable medical conditions.
With this argument set forth, it becomes important to look at the current status of the practice of euthanasia. In the United States, as of this writing, physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia by direct action of the doctor (such as administration of lethal injections) is considered homicide and an illegal practice. While it is important to distinguish that following “do not resuscitate” orders by means of not administering life-sustaining medications or treatments to patients who provide consent is considered “passive euthanasia” and is legal, the window for these means is still far too small to properly encompass the rights of many more patients who may desperately seek an end to their suffering but have no legal means to do so. The Netherlands and Belgium are notable countries that have taken steps towards affording these rights by legalizing the practice of euthanasia. While still technically considered homicide, physicians with patient consent who fall within proper standards of medical ethics are not prosecuted, opening up the practice as an option for suffering patients who have found no preferred alternative.
More wide adoption of this practice would be universally beneficial. Suffering patients would no longer have to live in a non-autonomous state and would be able to legally obtain the means to a dignified death without putting their physician at risk of prosecution. Families wouldn’t have to go through the pain of watching loved ones fight an irreversible condition. The medical profession would, on a whole, be bolstered by a stronger consideration of the rights of the individual in this context. Medical ethics codes include the concept that doctors should “do no harm,” and the Hippocratic oath taken by medical professionals even includes a proclamation that they will not help an individual end their life. This standard exists because of the passive nature of Hippocratic practice; Hippocrates himself advocated medical procedures that followed closely the natural process of things, a philosophy which rejected the idea of the intervention of the caregiver in the fate of the patient, regardless of the situation. Many modern-day proponents of legislation against euthanasia fall within this reasoning, not feeling that it is the duty of the doctor to “play God,” or be the actor in such situations that could be left to natural processes.
However, in light of the liberties of the patients doctors treat, it is necessary to reconsider the idea of helping assist a chronically ill or incapable patient’s wishes come true. In an age of medicine where a comfortable and dignified death is both entirely possible and plausible to be administered in these cases, does this not fall under another section of the oath, wherein the medical practitioner promises to “prescribe regimens for the good of [their] patients” whenever possible?
It is deserving of reflection that we are overlooking a core liberty to be afforded to individuals, and arguably one of the most important. We as libertarians proudly make it our daily fight to uphold the highest standards of life and maximum freedoms for all, and it seems only natural that it correlates with this to uphold the right for every individual to pass away in the most dignified manner possible. Personal liberties encompass our lives until death, including the ability to choose that end when we no longer find ourselves to be free. An independent and fruitful human experience would reach a heartbreaking end if left to a drawn-out struggle with a loss of autonomy that the individual did not want, and it is our turn to begin a strong considerations of the implications of this and work towards change.