Human Exceptionalism

There is no “Right to Die”

The tragic case of Sung Eun Grace Lee, the 28-year-old banker dying of brain cancer, made headlines when she won a lawsuit against her parents to have her respirator removed, and then changed her mind. But let’s leave the Lees alone. They have enough problems without our looking over their shoulders.

But there’s something going on in the reporting of the Lee case that I think does require our focus. The media ubiquitously reported the controversy as involving the “right to die.”  For example, this Los Angeles Times story headlined, “Grace Sung Eun Lee Fights for Right to Die, Chooses Life.” But that is wrong. There is no such thing in the USA as a right to die. And may there never be.

There is a right to refuse medical treatment, the actual issue in the Lee case. That’s not the same thing. Indeed, even when refusing treatment is expected to lead to death, people sometimes live  Example, Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents brought the first right to refuse treatment case back in the late 70s, successfully compelling doctors to remove a respirator. But Quinlan unexpectedly breathed on her own and lived for about 10 more years.

Similarly, the late humorist Art Buchwald expected to die from kidney failure soon after he exercised his right to refuse dialysis and entered hospice. But he didn’t die.  Indeed, he eventually left hospice and lived long enough to write his last book before finally succumbing.

The only type of withdrawal of care that will always result in death is removing food and water, as happened to Terri Schiavo.  But even the removal of medically-supplied sustenance isn’t a right to die, rather, to not be subjected to an unwanted invasive physical intrusion upon one’s body.   

But Wesley, what about assisted suicide?  Sorry, that doesn’t establish a right to die either. The legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia actually creates a right for doctors to participate legally in terminating a qualified patient’s life. If someone can’t find a willing doctor, he or she has no right to force the physician to participate or refer to a doctor who will. 

But surely, some of you might be saying, there is a right to commit suicide. Nope. There is often the power or ability to do so, but that’s not the same thing as a right. Indeed, suicides can be forcibly prevented and the suicidal hospitalized involuntarily as long as they remain a lethal threat to themselves.

Bottom line: There is no right to die. It is an advocacy term used to push particular agendas, not an accurate description of the law. 

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