The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

By Neil M. Gorsuch | Go to book overview

6

Autonomy Theory's Implications
for the Debate over Assisted Suicide
and Euthanasia

BECAUSE THE question whether the Constitution protects an interest in self-definition and autonomy constrained only by the limits of “reasoned judgment” remains (despite the arguments of some dissenters) very much in play, we must necessarily ask the next question: What exactly would respect for such an autonomy interest mean for the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia? If broad personal autonomy interests are protected by substantive due process doctrine, what kind of right to assistance in suicide or euthanasia follows? Though in a somewhat different posture—one unconstrained by constitutional doctrine—legislators also have to consider moral-political arguments for legalization based on conceptions of patient autonomy and choice. Indeed, many moral philosophers have suggested that concepts of autonomy and self-determination provide the strongest argument for legalization.1 In this chapter, I seek to evaluate the strength of such claims. I begin by briefly outlining the contours of three of the most prominent theories of personal autonomy in contemporary moral-political theory; then I consider their potential application to the assisted suicide and euthanasia debate.2


6.1 THE AUTONOMY DEBATE

Joseph Raz has identified three fundamental preconditions for the exercise of personal autonomy with which few can disagree. First, Raz notes that, to exercise autonomy, an individual must be capable of understanding his or her options and choosing between them. If a person is to be the true author of his or her own life, then he or she “must have the mental abilities to form intentions of a sufficiently complex kind, and plan their execution. These include minimum rationality, the ability to comprehend the means required to realize his goals, the mental faculties to plan actions, etc.”3

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