Is Legal Assisted Suicide a Liberal Concept?

German Minister of Health, Herrmann Gröhe, has recently demanded that all forms of suicide assistance should become punishable under criminal law. Today helping other people to commit suicide if they have a serious medical condition is not punishable in general. However, the legal situation is not very clear, and everyone who helps persons who commit suicide, even if they declare their will without any doubt and suffer from a terminal and painful illness, faces legal risks. Mr.Gröhe wants to close all loopholes for suicide assistance, regardless of the free will of a person and of the medical conditions.

In some European countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland) assisted suicide is legal with certain restrictions. Serious illnesses are a precondition required by the law. But if those conditions apply, physicians have the right to assist in suicide and even to kill people based on their will.

Image credit: “Freedom text” by jcolman on Flickr via Creative Commons.

What should the liberal position in the debate about assisted suicide be? The answer is quite clear: one of the core concepts of any political philosophy which deserves to be called “liberal” is “self-ownership”. It means that every human being is free to control their own person, their own body. Thus, it is beyond any doubt that every person enjoys the right to end their own life.

Another basic principle of liberalism is the freedom of contract. Everyone has the right to conclude a contract with other persons. The only limitation from a liberal perspective should be contracts on actions that violate the rights of others. Therefore, it is illegal to hire a contract killer. But in the case of assisted suicide, and in the case of ending one’s life by another person on request, there is no victim. There is no violation of other persons’ rights. It means that there is no general argument in favour of a law that prohibits suicide assistance and ending one’s life on request.

Various religious beliefs deny this right, because they claim that human beings are finally owned by god and not by themselves. It is their right to think so. It is their right to live following their beliefs. It is their right to propagate their views in an offensive manner. However, they have no right to force other people to follow their views. It is up to liberals to fight against all attempts of churches and religious communities to use the state to enforce their beliefs as a general law. Secular and liberal states have to enforce the law and not the will of God. And for liberals, the law should be designed for one purpose only: to defend the individual freedom and the property rights of every individual. It is clear what that means in this case.

Professional organizations also fiercely oppose assisted suicide and ending one’s life on request. They claim that it is their duty to save human life and not to end it. Every individual physician might follow this belief. However, it cannot be the fundament of law, because from a liberal perspective, the law should guarantee individual freedom and the right to make one’s own decisions and not any abstract “life”, if it contradicts the wishes of a human being.

This general argument doesn’t answer all relevant questions. What should the declaration of free will look like? Should there be a waiting time to avoid panic reactions? Should there be any limitations based on medical conditions? How should legal suicide assistance, and also ending one’s life on request, be supervised to avoid cases of malpractice and abuse? Should it be possible to declare one’s own free will to die under certain conditions in advance?

Liberals should be engaged in the discussion on these issues, and in deed various discussions are possible and should be pondered. But the aim of those discussions should be to give all men and women maximum space for their very individual decision making.