The Schiavo case has recently raised troubling issues over the right to die - the right of people to refuse medical treatment or even actively choose death rather than a life of pain and suffering - and of who decides when someone is not competant to decide for themselves. But what about the flip side of the issue? In the UK, doctors are currently challenging a patient's right to demand life-prolonging treatment on the basis that leaving that decision in the hands of patients is not in their best interests. Instead, the UK's General Medical Council insists that doctors should be able to refuse to provide care which may cause suffering or be "too burdensome in relation to the possible benefits". There are two reasons for opposing this paternalistic attitude. The first is that while we may not be competant in diagnosis, or to choose which treatment is best suited to resolve a particular problem, we are competant to choose the ends of treatment, whether it be "make my headache go away" or "keep me alive". And we're perfectly entitled to insist that doctors do what they can towards those ends within certain parameters of cost and risk. But more importantly, it does not respect patients' autonomy.
Autonomy - the idea that people are both owners and authors of their own lives - is the central issue in many "right to die" cases. Respecting autonomy means allowing people to choose how much pain and suffering they are willing to tolerate. But if we accept that individuals are allowed to choose to die to avoid suffering, there should be absolutely no question that if they instead want to fight to the last and squeeze every precious second out of life regardless of how much it hurts, then that wish should be respected. If we accept a right to die, we must also accept a right to live.