Rawls, Justice, & Assisted Suicide

Yesterday, we had a fantastic visit from from Brian Keenan from the University of Winnipeg. He engaged us in a dialogue about the notion of justice and helped us solidify some of the ideas we have studied. Dr. Keenan also elaborated on Rawls’ conceptualization of justice. Many of us were “okay” with this theory of justice, whereas others questioned his second principle.

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court of Canada is listening to arguments on whether physician-assisted suicide should or should not be constitutional. Those who are on the “right to die” side of things, argue that certain sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated.

How does Rawls’ theory of justice inform the debate on assisted suicide? How does your understanding of justice inform your opinion on the decision the SCC will make? Be sure to be clear with your argument and use evidence to support it.

To help answer these questions, I have posted the following links:

CBC Article and Video clips on SCC Case

Rawls and the Question of Physician­Assisted Suicide

LA Times on John Rawls (a Primer)


12 thoughts on “Rawls, Justice, & Assisted Suicide

  1. From the perspective of Rawls basic principle; would the haves accept the status quo if they were in the position of the have-nots?, makes it just to say that assisted suicide should be a right. From the Supreme Courts perspective, they see it just to live out life until death by natural or physical causes. A little less than a year ago, Winnipeg’s Susan Griffiths traveled to Zurich, Switzerland to have assisted suicide, being legal there. Following Rawls principle the scenario would be a lot more difficult if a member of the Supreme Court was deathly ill and looking for a pain-free and tender way to die. Rawls principle makes a case that assisted suicide should be legal, as it could happen to anyone.

    From my perspective of justice i believe that assisted suicide should be legal in Canada. I believe justice is the act of righteousness and following this principle i believe assisted suicide should be legal. Every body has the right to life, liberty and justice. If you have the right to life why don’t you have the right to die. Its just for someone like Susan Griffiths to be happy and around friends and family before she passes away. It’s just to give someone a joyful way out rather then making them life the rest of their life in sorrow.

  2. 1. 1st Theory: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others
    -basic rights, same as everybody else’s
    -people w/ disabilities who physically cannot commit suicide should be extended the same “advantage” that other suicide victims have (killing yourself being legal)
    2nd theory justifies the inequality in this issue (not everybody can commit assisted suicide) because the people who this concerns (patients with terminal illness) are better off in their perspective

    2. My view or understanding of justice leads me to believe that those suffering from terminal illnesses have the right to ask for physician-assisted suicide. For me, it allows certain liberties to be exercised that allow people to have decided in the way that they lived and in the way that they died, This allows them to choose the way they die, and to die with dignity, something that is protected under our charter.

    In addition, the inequality that exists right now does not benefit anybody. The fact that only certain people are allowed to kill themselves in a painful and unsafe way is not just. By allowing physician-assisted suicide, this inequality will be taken away and peoples charter rights can be upheld.

  3. The fact that physician-assisted suicide is illegal violates Rawls’ Theory of justice. Under the first principle, everyone should be guaranteed the most basic liberties, otherwise known as equal treatment. People who are not disabled by a disease or natural birth defects are legally allowed to commit suicide – it is not a criminalized offense because it is ineffective in practice and doesn’t help deter suicide from occurring. People who are physically unable to commit suicide should be extended the same privilege by being given the help of a physician. Under the second principle of justice, people who are affected by chronic disease would be extended an option to have a physician aid them, and this creates an inequality because people who are not effected by disease cannot opt for this option; however, this inequality is justified because it helps people who do not have a fully functional body to have their rights protected. This inequality serves those who can be considered as the “worst off” in society because having a chronic disease prevents you from being able to live a functional life.

    I believe that euthanasia should be legalized by the state because it protects the rights of individuals who are in circumstances in which they cannot physically end their own lives. The ability to commit suicide coincides with the right to life because fully functional people are free to die as they wish. Those disabled by chronic disease wish to die with dignity and should be extended the same opportunity to end their life. In the case of Switzerland, assisted suicide is allowed as long as it was not “selfishly motivated” (Patients Rights Council). A patient in Switzerland could receive a physician’s aid to end their life. In April of 2013, Susan Griffiths, a Winnipeg Woman, had been diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy. Her condition had no cure and she had been taking prescription medication to help suppress the symptoms of her disease. She knew that she couldn’t suppress the symptoms for the rest of her life, and she would die in a great deal of pain and suffering. She did not want her family to have to witness this and opted to go to Switzerland where she died surrounded by her loved ones in peace (CBC News). This alternative was clearly more attractive than suffering. Susan Griffiths choice to go to Switzerland was justified and as a nation, Canada should extend this option to it’s citizens who face similar circumstances as a way to protect their basic equality rights and right to life and liberty.

  4. Even after watching 30 seconds of the video, you can already see that the 1st principle of justice isn’t being followed by having physician-assisted suicide be illegal. The 1st principle states that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others”. As Maritina has already stated, this means that everyone has the same basic rights. This means that if some people have the right to kill themselves, simply because they have the body strength to do it, doesn’t mean that others who are too weak to do it themselves shouldn’t be able to do it also. It is not fair that a healthy, strong, capable person is able to kill themselves, and a weak, dying, sick person is not. When did we decide that if it is our choice to die, we can kill ourselves, but once a disease has decided to kill you, you have to sit and wait around until it completely takes over your body? This violates the principle of everyone having equal rights because, in reality, it is not fair to be allowed the right to die only if you are strong enough to carry it out yourself.

    The second principle basically states that if for some reason the equal rights mentioned in the first principle are not accessible to a certain group, they should be modified to fit everyones advantages and/or disadvantages. Generally speaking, this means that if you have a right that you are entitled to, but are not able to carry it out alone, they should modify it to make sure you still get the same rights as others. This second principle basically screams “make physician-assisted suicide legal!”. If you have the right to kill yourself, but are not able to do it alone, the process should be modified to fit your needs.

    After discussing this matter in class, reading about it, and watching the video, in my opinion, physician-assisted suicide should be legal. It isn’t right that some people are denied a right simply because they can not do it alone. It isn’t fair that someone diagnosed with depression is able to end their suffering, but someone diagnosed with cancer isnt. I feel that by making this legal, it will end many peoples suffering, stop debate on this inequality, and help make equal rights more of a reality.

  5. Here are some resources I found online:

    Suicide is not a crime in Canada and hasn’t been since 1972, but physician-assisted suicide is illegal.

    The Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241(b) that
    “Every one who ….(b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years”

    However, on Friday, June 15, 2012, the Supreme Court of British Columbia struck down these sections on constitutional grounds as they apply to severely disabled patients capable of giving assent: “the impugned provisions unjustifiably infringe s. 7 [and s. 15 ] of the Charter, and are of no force and effect to the extent that they prohibit physician-assisted suicide by a medical practitioner in the context of a physician-patient relationship”. Moreover, the court found that the relevant sections were legislatively overbroad, had a disproportionate effect on people with disabilities, and were “grossly disproportionate to the objectives it is meant to accomplish.”

    The Minister of Justice and Attorney General has appealed the last decision considering that laws that prohibit and punish euthanasia and assisted suicide are constitutionally valid and exist to protect all Canadian people, “including those who are most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly or people with disabilities.” He also added: “The Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged the state interest in protecting human life and upheld the constitutionality of the existing legislation in Rodriguez (1993). In April 2010, a large majority of Parliamentarians voted not to change these laws, which is an expression of democratic will on this topic.”

    The reason behind its illegality is due to prevent people from ‘assisting in suicide’ of those that are not mentally capable of making the decision and because of the “value that society [places] on human life” which “in the eyes of the law makers, might easily be eroded if assistance in committing suicide were to be decriminalized.”

  6. How does Rawls’ theory of justice inform the debate on assisted suicide?
    John Rawls’ theory of justice revolves around two major principles. The first being that every citizen has the right to basic liberty which is compatible with that of others, and the second being that social and economic positions are to work to everyone’s advantage. So why should we here in Canada not give our citizens the right to get assisted suicide? Justice is people getting what they want and deserve, and if someone wants to kill themself, than they should have the absolute right to get help doing so in the least painful but yet effective way possible. The main point that Rawls’ theory suggests is that humans should get to do what they want to, to themselves and their body’s. I am one hundred percent in favour of assisted suicide being legalized in Canada today.

    How does your understanding of justice inform your opinion on the decision the SCC will make?
    My understanding of justice is based off of people getting what is equal and what they deserve. I also have a strong understanding that some people’s justice is determined differently based on the colour of their skin, their race, or their ethical backgrounds. For instance, I believe that in the Supreme Court of Canada, based on my knowledge of justice, judges are more likely to give minority groups far less justice than they deserve. I believe that if something were to happen to a person of Caucasian descent, and a First Nations person, although there outcome of justice should be equal, I believe that this would simply not end up being the case. In Canada’s near future I would like to see a more integrated Supreme Court, and other Courts all across Canada, as this would help drastically put a stop to the negative views and bias behaviors going on towards our legal system here in Canada.

  7. The law against assisted suicide contradicts Rawls’ Theory of Justice. All peoples are supposed to be assured equality. If people without disabilities are allowed to take their own life, then why is it that people with disabilities do not have the same possibility? This is going against the idea that everyone has equal rights. If someone with ALS wishes to end their life, they cannot. This is because of the law against assisted suicide. It is an inequality against people with disabilities. Physician-assisted suicide gives people who are not strong enough to take their own lives the same opportunity as people who have enough physical strength to do it themselves. As Shelby said, it is unjustifiable to say that once you are diagnosed with an illness, you must die of that illness. Everyone should be able to decide for themselves, not by the government, whether on not they wish to commit suicide.

    I believe that physician-assisted suicide should be legalized because it justifies the right to equality. If someone who is without a disability is able to commit suicide, then how is it equal to say that someone with a disability cannot? Simply because they cannot do it themselves, doesn’t mean we should be depriving them of something that is legal for others. When Susan Griffiths had been diagnosed with an incurable disease, she decided that she did not wish to go on living a life in pain. For the betterment of herself and her loved ones, she went to Switzerland where physician-assisted suicide is legal. This was evidently the better option for her, rather than suffering through her own life. Switzerland gave Susan Griffiths the opportunity to take her life in a peaceful manner. Canada isn’t providing its citizens with the same opportunities. If we support equality, then we should support it in every aspect. Including suicide.

  8. Rawls’ first principle of justice states that each person has an equal right to their basic freedoms. Along with the right to your life comes the right to end your life. It would seem that someone with a terminal illness should be able to choose when and how they die. It makes sense that these people would rather die painlessly, surrounded by their loved ones, than continue living in pain. They should not be forced to die from the disease that has been thrust upon them. The idea of assisted suicide is meant to resolve an inequality, because people who are physically capable of committing suicide can do so without being punished, but those who are incapable cannot, therefore they should be able to end their life with assistance if they wish.
    However, allowing this select group of “physically incapable” people to purse physician assisted suicide brings up another inequality. Just because someone is physically capable of committing suicide, it does not mean that they are mentally capable. What if they just can’t bring themselves to do it? Should these people not also be able to have this option? The whole idea of the second principle is to make the worst off people in society better off, but who is considered “worst off?” The person who is dying is not necessarily worst off. Perhaps there is a person who is dying, but not afraid of death and their pain is under control. On the other hand, there may be is a person with chronic depression not responding to medication who is suffering every day. The person with the terminal illness can still live a fulfilling life and contribute to society, but assisted suicide is giving them the option to end their life early. How is it fair that the person with depression will have to live the rest of their life in misery? Are they not entitled to the same option? Also what if a minor or an adult who is developmentally delayed has a terminal illness and decide they want to pursue assisted suicide. Should they be able to make this decision for themselves? If not, should their parent or legal guardian be entitled to make this decision for them? And then there’s the issue of a person with a severe chronic disability: should they be able to pursue assisted suicide because of the perceived poor quality of their life? But who’s to say their life has less quality than an able bodied person? Although they may be limited, they can still have a fulfilling and satisfying life and be a significant contributor to society. There is another inequality: assisted suicide would allow certain people to die when and how they choose. This is unfair because the vast majority of people do not get to decide when or how they die.
    In my opinion, there are too many variables to be able to make a straight decision on whether or not physician assisted suicide should be legalized. If it is legalized, it would not be to achieve death, but to avoid pain and suffering. Although it may be the right option for one person, it may not be for another. Where do you draw the line?

  9. I agree with Disha and Shelby.
    According to Rawls’ first principle everybody should have the same basic rights implying equal treatment. However, this principle is not being applied to people with disabilities. For an able bodied person who may be suffering depression to commit suicide is not illegal and these people have the ability to end their lives whenever and however they desire under their circumstances. This right is not currently available to a disabled person with lets say ALS. Someone with ALS is not physically capable to end their lives even if they wanted to just as much as someone who is able to; a person who is physically unable to commit suicide by themselves should be given their equal right and be allowed assisted suicide. The basic rights of disabled people are being denied. If a person suffering from depression is mentally under a great amount of pain and unable to handle it they are able to and allowed to commit suicide. If a disabled person is physically under a great amount of pain and unable to handle it and wish to end their lives they should be allowed to, but they are not. Canada is not giving the same basic human rights to all of their citizens, they are in fact illustrating an inequality towards the disabled.

    Rawls’ first principle is being contradicted in respect to the law on assisted suicide. Equal treatment is currently not the case and this needs to be changed. How is it that in such a developed first world country a basic human right is being denied? As Ally said “everyone should be able to decide for themselves, not by the government, whether or not they wish to commit suicide”. Consequently, because the Canadian government is controlling the way the disabled wish to end their own lives, Susan Griffiths reluctantly had to fly all the way to Switzerland to pass peacefully. Physician assisted suicide is much more comforting for the patient as it allows them to be surrounded by their loved ones. As stated in an article published by The Globe and Mail, “Whats criminal about suicide? Withholding access to it” ($*). This life is ours and everyone should be entitled to when they wish to end it.

    $*- http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/whats-criminal-about-suicide-withholding-access-to-it/article21179551/

  10. Rawls’ Theory of Justice has two principles, with the first being behind the veil of ignorance that we would choose equality. When we look at this principle in regards to physician-assisted suicide it does not come into affect. By having physician-assisted suicide illegal, it does not allow those who want to commit suicide, but for some reason cannot do it themselves, to follow through with their desires. As a result of physician-assisted suicide being illegal and not meeting the standards of the first principle, we must look at the second principle to see if it meets those standards. The second principle states that inequalities are justified if the worst off person is better off with that inequality, and again this is not the case for physician-assisted suicide. The worst off people in this situation are the people that want to commit suicide but cannot follow through themselves. In no way are they better off with physician-assisted suicide being illegal because it means that they must remain living and don’t even get a choice of whether they want to or not.

    I believe that physician-assisted suicide should definitely be legalized because it is very important for people to have the choice of whether or not they want to continue living and then be able to carry out whatever they decide. Like we discussed in class, everyone on Earth has the right to life and therefore should have the right to death as well, but right now those who cannot kill themselves, for whatever reason, do not have the right to death.

  11. Rawls theory of justice has two parts. The equality principal and the difference principal. The equality principal states that everyone looking through the “veil of ignorance” will choose equality. So everyone will also choose to have equal rights and freedoms. If everyone chooses equal rights and freedoms why are disabled people that want to die on their own terms but physically can’t not allowed to receive assisted suicide? The Charter guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security which in turns allows you to take your life if you choose. If everyone is equal, under the law, people who physically can’t kill themselves must be entitled to receive assisted suicide. The second principal (the difference principal) states that inequality is allowed if the worst off person can benefit from those that are better off. In this case the person that wants to die and can’t do it him/herself is worse off than the doctor trying to help with assisted suicide. The question is are they better off dead if that’s what they want? This is where there is uncertainty. Some people will say it’s better to die of natural causes but others will say the Charter should be amended and people that can’t physically die on their own terms should have the right to assisted suicide.

    I don’t know how the supreme court will rule, but I think they might favour keeping the Charter the same. This is because this has come up before and has not been passed and the Charter has not been changed. Personally I believe if someone wants to die on their own terms they should have the right to. If someone was not able to they should be assisted if they sign that they want to die, are in the right mindset to choose (or if they wrote down when they would want to die if for example someone might write that if they were unable to eat, talk, or were in constant pain that they would rather be killed than hooked up to medical devices for the rest of their life), and are over a certain age. I also found this link: http://euthanasia.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000126 that makes good points on both sides, but I still favour the legalization of assisted suicide.

    By the way here is the link to another case in the supreme court that ended up declining assisted suicide and keeping the Charter the same: http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp349-e.htm

  12. Pingback: Tri-Conference | gmurraysouth

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