Volume 24, Number 4, April 2023 Supplement - Section I: The survey

Human rights framework of the right to life and right to die

Katherine Pettus
IAHPC Senior Director of Partnerships & Advocacy

Opponents and proponents of assisted dying proposals who do not rely on religious arguments often adopt a human rights argument. As of now, there is no “right to die” in international law, although national law is evolving on the topic. This is not intended to be an exhaustive literature review, but a snapshot of sources in international law and commentary. 

Right to life

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3, states that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” It is notable that there is no declaration addressing issues related to “insecurity of the person.”

Right to die?

There is no “right to die” under international law, and cannot be inferred from the ordinary meaning of any human rights document. On the contrary, human rights documents call upon states to protect life. Of the 193 members of the United Nations, only four have legalized euthanasia (Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands), while others have ruled that euthanasia or medically assisted dying is no longer a criminal offense (e.g., Colombia, Germany, New Zealand). The issue continues to be fiercely debated (e.g., Portugal, Spain): it has been rejected by legislatures in many jurisdictions, and is currently being considered in others. 

Assisted dying around the world

A British Medical Association map of the world displays international jurisdictions of physician-assisted dying legislation, and describes of laws in six jurisdictions in 2021. 

Autonomy, self-determination, patients’ rights as claims

While more recent sources could not be found, success depends on jurisdiction, as per the 2008 article “The Discourses of Autonomy in the International Human Rights Law: Has the Age of a Right to Die Arrived?” 

The European Court of Human Rights rejected autonomy claims in Pretty v. the United Kingdom, Application No. 2346/02, Judgment of 29 April 2002, where a disabled woman sought to exempt her husband from prosecution if he helped her to die. 

Right to refuse treatment

More or less universal in the 21st century.

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