A fight for dignity: Human rights and medically assisted dying

As part of a Liberal International (LI) campaign to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights parliamentarians from LI member parties are being invited to write short opinion articles pertaining to some of the UDHR’s primary articles.


Forged in 1948 as a tool of global consensus to crack the twinned kernels of domination and discrimination, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – 70 years’ old in December this year – is a milestone in our shared pursuit of basic liberties and development.

From The Philippines to Zanzibar, the human rights dialogue has flourished for seven decades, sweeping across continents and encouraging communities to challenge traditional beliefs. Liberals can be proud of the demand for the values we espouse, rooted in part in Eleanor Roosevelt’s great charter. The right to rights, both individual and collective, remains vociferous and persuasive.

For the authors, Liberal parliamentarians in Canada and Chile, we are engaged, at different stages, in one of the most emotive debates in the human rights lexicon: medically assisted dying. Autonomy is gaining ground in the doctor-patient relationship as control over important medical choices concerning end of life care increasingly rests with the patient.

As more countries embark on delicate debates surrounding medically assisted dying, they have a duty to consider their national rights’ charters but also the liberal values set out in the UDHR, as growing numbers of people consider whether it is principled for governments to forbid competent adults from dying with dignity, even in well-defined circumstances.  Our answer is that it is not.

Ten years after the UDHR was adopted, chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person… where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”

Yet the truth is that the decriminalization of medically assisted dying does not find its justification exclusively in the value of freedom; it is also deeply rooted in the very human need to protect a loved one from suffering. Medically assisted dying is equally concerned with compassion.

This is why, as the authors of this article, we urge countries to modernize their legislation to craft a space for autonomy and human rights to exist in harmony, in the context of medically assisted dying. To cultivate the debate we propose the following basic criteria, which are consistent with the law adopted in Canada and the bill successfully presented to the Chilean parliament.

In order to be eligible for legal medical assistance in dying a patient must:

  1. Be at least 18 years old and mentally competent.
  2. Make a request for medically assisted dying voluntarily and free of any external pressure or influence.
  3. Be suffering from a serious irreversible terminal illness, disease or disability in which the patient is at a point where his or her natural death is reasonably foreseeable and is experiencing unbearable suffering that cannot be alleviated under conditions that are acceptable to him or her.
  4. Declare, in front of two medical professionals on separate occasions, at least a certain period apart, that he or she wants medical assistance to end his or her life.

Under these very precise conditions, we believe that a society which respects individual freedom must recognize medically-assisted dying as a fundamental right.

Those who seek to use the power of the state to restrict the freedoms of this select group of citizens seek to impose their moral beliefs on individuals living under conditions in which they have likely never lived. These are not values we share.  We strongly agree that no medical professional or other individual should ever be compelled to participate in medically assisted dying and that no individual should be encouraged or coerced to avail him or herself of it. But to prevent those individuals who meet all the criteria we set out above from making a choice to end their life through the power of criminal law goes too far in a society that values human rights and autonomy.  Medically assisted dying is being implemented in Canada and Colombia and it must not be relegated by politicians elsewhere to the league of ‘too tough to talk about’. We hope that those states which have not yet moved in this direction will do so carefully but promptly.

Anthony Housefather MP,

Chairman of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, Liberal Party of Canada

Vlado Mirosevic Verdugo MP

Member of Parliamentary Commission of International Relations, Liberal Party of Chile

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