Individual Liberties and the Right to Die

About three months ago, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard ended her life. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, her prognosis was less than grim, with the average life expectancy of similar patients about 14 months.

Upon receiving her diagnosis, Maynard and her husband moved to Oregon, where the state’s “Death with Dignity” law would allow her to end her own life using a high dose of sedatives prescribed by her doctor.

Brittany’s story received nationwide attention. Now Brittany’s husband, Dan Diaz, is sparking further debate by discussing his wife’s decision in an interview with Meredith Vieria. In particular, people debate, does someone have the right to die? What unintended consequences may occur as a result?

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. Suppose you were diagnosed, like Brittany, with some incurable, painful, ultimately fatal disease. Armed with the knowledge and ability to painlessly end your life, would you consider it? To be honest, I don’t know that I could do it (I’m not sure I can square it with my moral compass). But even if I wouldn’t, I cannot say that I would deny that choice for another person.

Allow me to explain why.

Individuals choose. We face choices everyday with respect to what to do with our resources and our time. Each time we make a decision, we weigh the potential benefits and costs. Every action we take is done to achieve some goal. We work to remove what economist Ludwig von Mises called “felt uneasiness.” If we are hungry, we eat. If we are tired, we sleep. If we are cold, we put on a sweater.

If one holds this view of human behavior, that individuals take actions they believe will generate the best outcomes given the choices they face, then suicide is a choice like any other. Given their options, some feel that ending their life is better than continuing it. Since we cannot know an individual’s preferences or their “internal calculation” of cost and benefits, we cannot say with any certainty that the person “made the wrong choice” when they ended their life without imputing our own personal beliefs and biases.

What are the practical consequences of such a practice? Would allowing individuals to take their lives openly and with assistance lead to scores of people drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid? Murdering grandma for the inheritance? A “suicide epidemic”?

Assisted suicide is legal only in a handful of countries. Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia, and Japan allow the practice. In the U.S., Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana allow doctors to prescribe patients a lethal dose of medication.

Indeed, after enacting these laws, states like Oregon have seen an increase in assisted suicide. However, one could hardly call it an “epidemic.” In 1998, 16 people in Oregon used the Death with Dignity Law to end their lives. In 2013, this number reached 71—representing a mere 0.21% of all deaths.

Some argue that if such policies were to be broadly adopted, people would use the law as a means of murder. Note, however, that these laws govern suicide, not euthanasia. These two actions are fundamentally different. In the first case, an individual takes his own life. In the latter, someone else ends a person’s life. The difference comes down whether or not the individual has the choice.

The current laws allowing physician-assisted suicide place strict guidelines on who is eligible. In each of the states where this is allowed, for example, only terminally ill patients are eligible. Further, the patients must be able to articulate and administer the fatal dose of drugs themselves. The documentary film, “How to Die in Oregon,” captures this aspect of the law. Before an individual can take the drugs he or she is asked two questions:

“Do you know that you have the right to change to your mind?”
“Do you know what this [medication] will do to you?”

In the beginning of the film, Oregon resident Roger Sagner answers these questions quickly with, “My mind’s not changing. It will kill me and make me happy.” He followed this with,

I thank the wisdom of the voters of the state of Oregon for allowing me the honor of doing myself in on my own volition to solve my own problems.

The topic of assisted suicide brings up many issues, both religious and political. Religious issues are personal, subjective, and, therefore, unproductive in this discussion (this is not to deny that moral issues are important). For those of us who believe in civil liberties and the right of individual choice, I am not sure one can make a case against allowing someone to take their own life if they believe it’s the best alternative. If one is against government interference in our kitchens, workplaces, bedrooms, and other parts of our lives, then being in favor of government regulation of the end of life is inconsistent.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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