The Right to Live v The Right to Die

A few weeks ago, I found myself trawling through Netflix looking for something to take my mind off the stresses of university, work and family life. I thought a nice romantic or uplifting film would do me the world of good. I was looking through films like The Notebook (a classic, but I just didn’t feel like it), Age of Adaline, Safe Haven and then, I come across Me Before You.

I remember hearing on the radio about the controversy the film caused. For those of you who have never seen it or read about it, it is about a young man who becomes quadriplegic following an accident and subsequently chose to end his own life. I knew that much before I decided to watch the movie. Some part of me thought I could handle a film centred on euthanasia in my current emotional state. Boy, I was wrong. I bawled like baby.

Will chose to end his own life despite the fact that someone was in love with him and wanted to make a life together. With the realisation that sometimes someone else’s love isn’t enough to make you want to live – what is?

So yeah, that was a silly decision on my part, now I was more upset than before (Poor Lou, Poor Will and his parents). I was left pondering what it takes for someone to want to end their life. For those of you wondering where this is going – no, I am not suicidal or depressed – I am just curious about people’s motives. The right to life, liberty, justice and freedom are fundamental human rights. These rights are enshrined our in laws and reflected, to an extent, in our society. Last week, on The Project I heard the panel debating the Victorian bill to legalise assisted dying. Essentially, this bill looks to legalise euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. There a number of terminology and definitional issues surrounding these terms. The ways in which these definitions are worded tend to colour their understanding.

Euthanasia is defined by the Australian Medical Association as, “The act of deliberately ending the life of a patient for the purpose of ending intolerable pain and/ or suffering”. Euthanasia encompasses a number of sub-categories namely, voluntary euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is generally defined as ending the life of a competent, informed patient at their request. Whereas, passive euthanasia is defined as not initiating or no longer continuing life-sustaining treatment that results in death as a direct consequence of the underlying disease. Passive euthanasia can be equated with the withdrawal of life-support by physicians at the request of a patient’s family.

The term physician assisted suicide (PAS) is applied by the AMA, where the assistance of the doctor is intentionally directed at enabling an individual to end his or her own life. As you can see the definition of physician assisted suicide makes no references to the ending of intolerable pain and suffering and for many I think this when alarm bells start ringing. What are the safe guards against abuse? What are the limits? Does it have to be voluntary? Legalising this will only lead to more deaths!

Nearly all States and Territories have at some point in last couple of decades tabled a bill to decriminalise and legalise of euthanasia and PAS. All of these bills have previously been defeated in Parliament. However, Victoria looks set to pass the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill this year . If the bill is passed Victoria will join a number of European countries, Canada and some States in America to legalise assisted dying.

Some of you will fundamentally refute any notion that a person has the right to end their own life. This belief may be founded because of your religious beliefs or maybe, it is just your personal stance. And you, like every other person, are entitled to your beliefs.


Some of you will support the decriminalisation and legalisation of what is essentially, a choice. Like me, you might link the freedom of choice to other freedoms – like the right to marriage equality or the right to an abortion. The decision to end your own life is completely individual and should be completely your own.

Let’s note that this bill (like most of the international laws) deals specifically with euthanasia and PAS, not the act of suicide itself. Suicide has been decriminalised in Australia. A majority of countries only deem a person to be eligible to voluntarily end their own life if they are in intolerable pain and suffering, or suffering from a terminal illness.

The Victorian bill sets out the following eligibility criteria in order for a person to access voluntary assisted dying besides being over the age of 18 and ordinarily a resident in Victoria and the person must also:

  • Have decision-making capacity; and
  • Be diagnosed with a disease or medical condition that is incurable, expected to cause death within the year; and
  • is causing suffering that the person considers to be in tolerable.

The Act explicitly regards anyone suffering from a mental illness as ineligible.

So let’s look at some statistics – what does legalising euthanasia and PAS equal mean? Does it result in more deaths?

In the Netherlands, euthanasia only accounts for 3.8% of all deaths and in Belgium the rate is 4.6%. However the data shows that not all requested for euthanasia are granted, in the Netherlands only 45% of requested are honoured and 77% in Belgium . So looking at that data it doesn’t seem like legalising euthanasia is amounts to mass suicide but let’s look at some data from the US. In Oregon, where PAS has been legalised for 17 years, it has only accounted for 0.3% of deaths, whereas as gun violence accounted for 12% of all deaths . In Washington PAS only accounted for 0.24% of deaths. Looking at these figures legalising euthanasia and PAS doesn’t lead to more deaths.

So what are the most common reasons behind people seeking out euthanasia or PAS?

In the US 90% of patients reported a loss of autonomy, 90% were less able to engage in activities that make life enjoyable and 70% declared a loss of dignity . These patients were diagnosed with advancing and incurable illness and experiencing intolerable pain and suffering. So, who I am to say “no, you can’t do that”. Sure there need to be safeguards, which are implemented by law, but at the end of the day this is an individual choice that a person should have the freedom to make without the fear that their loved ones or their physicians may be charged with a criminal offence.

If you are interested on reading more on the topic there are numerous pro and against resources you can access:







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