Moral Issues Surrounding the Right to Die

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  • 0:01 Right to Die
  • 0:53 Allowing Someone to Die
  • 1:52 Living Wills and Hospice
  • 2:48 Mercy Death
  • 3:38 Physician-Assisted Suicide
  • 4:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

So much of our legal system is geared towards guaranteeing the right of people to live. But what about those who wish to die? This lesson explains the moral issues surrounding the right to die.

Right to Die

In many democratic countries, the right to life is a given. After all, all of the great political philosophers allude to it. The Declaration of Independence begins with the guarantee that life is an inalienable right. Additionally, a number of countries have used the right to life to ban capital punishment, saying that such a guarantee on life makes the death penalty illegal.

But what about a right to die? An emerging philosophical question is if people have the right to live then surely, they have the right to die. Others oppose this line of reasoning, saying that it leaves society's most vulnerable in a weak position. In any event, such discussion definitely reaches beyond the platitudes of each side's supporters.

Allowing Someone to Die

The most elementary issue encountered in determining the right of someone to die is whether or not they should be allowed to die. This takes a variety of different positions, ranging from a death row prisoner wanting to end their life by their own hands to someone on a voluntary hunger strike.

However, for this lesson, let's focus on a problem faced by many health care providers - a patient has a chance, albeit small, of recovery, but if left to nature, would die. That small chance is important. After all, the flu could lead a person to death's door if not treated. The idea is that the chance of survival is rather small. Equally important is the procedure needed to save the life. In this debate, it is almost always highly invasive, ranging from CPR on a frail elderly person to feeding and breathing tubes after a patient has entered a vegetative state. Detractors from such treatments point to the fact that often the treatment is worse than a more peaceful death, while supporters point to evidence of people recovering from such conditions.

Living Wills and Hospices

Many people do not want to put their families in the position of having to choose. As a result, they write living wills. A living will defines the end of life treatment a person desires. It includes specific instructions, ranging from trying everything to orders to only use CPR or even a request for first responders and medical professionals to not attempt resuscitation. Those documents are designed for situations when the patient may not be able to give guidance, such as if he or she is unconscious.

Meanwhile, an option for individuals who are cognizant of their surroundings who wish to avoid such measures is the hospice. A hospice is a facility that cares for individuals in the last days of their lives, especially those who attend to the comfort of the individual during his or her last days.

Mercy Death

But all of those revolve around the individual making the decision. What if it is left to others? For example, often when a pet has an inoperable condition, owners choose to put the pet down gently with medication, providing a painless death. Some argue that such a mercy death, a less painful death directly caused by a caregiver instead of a perceived more painful demise, is ethically appropriate in humans as well.

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