The United States should legalize death with dignity as a basic human right. This is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon, but highly likely in the future. Now with five US states making “death with dignity” legal, this movement may spread more quickly than I thought just a few years ago. 

Farfetched? An article in the Monday, April 1, 2002, New York Times reported the story, “Dutch Legalize Euthanasia, The First Such National Law” (p. A9). I will quote from the article:

Parliament set off a worldwide controversy last April when it voted to legalize a practice the Dutch have tolerated for decades. Opponents drew scary parallels with the killing of disabled and mentally ill people in Nazi Germany, but Dutch doctors must obey strict rules or face prosecution.

Among the conditions, patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering and must make a voluntary, well-considered request to die. Doctor and patient must be convinced that there is no other solution, another physician must be consulted, and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way.

 Some doctors say the fact that euthanasia is allowed is often a sufficient comfort in itself. “For many terminally ill people, the fact that they can choose to die is an immense consolation,” said Coot Kuipers, a general practitioner in Uden, in the south.

Later in 2002 Belgium adopted a right-to-die law. In the United States, Oregon, Washington, and Montana have passed right to die laws. Britain, France, and Australia have had ongoing national debates about such laws.

While controversial, should not individuals have the right to die if that is their choice? Fair question. (Photo credit)

While controversial, should not individuals have the right to die if that is their choice? Fair question. (Photo credit)

The controversy over the work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in Michigan led to similar debates throughout the United States. No doubt, the debates had an effect on the outcome of efforts in Oregon when they adopted the Death with Dignity Act in 1997. As of 2014, five US states have legalized doctor-assisted suicide, with several others have had similar bills introduced in their legislatures. Those five states are: 

  • Oregon
  • Washington
  • Vermont
  • Montana
  • New Mexico

Is the First Amendment right to free speech more important than the right of the terminally ill to die? Is the Second Amendment right to bear arms—allowing people to die violently—more important than the right of the terminally ill to die peacefully?

The time has come for citizens to begin the process through our democratic institutions to seek an amendment to the United States Constitution to make the right to die a new inalienable right. The great Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson has often spoken and written about the coming synergism between science and the humanities (e.g., his book Consilience). He argues that biological evolution among humans is leading to a corresponding strand of development he calls cultural evolution. This is a very hopeful and powerful concept.

I would conclude by suggesting that improvement in human capacities to manage the world and ourselves will lead to more humane and compassionate cultures around the globe. The emergence of death with dignity laws as a universal human right will be evidence of cultural evolution. The United States and Europe should be among the world’s leaders in this drive, and the process clearly has begun.

No, I don’t think this will happen soon. But I do think it will happen in due time as our collective thinking continues to evolve. It’s the right thing to do in nations that believe in freedom and liberty.