Legal Dictionary


Definition of right-to-die


right-to-die (plural rights-to-die)

  1. A putative right for a person to decide not to be kept alive by heroic means and to die with dignity.

Further reading

The term "right to die" refers to various issues related to the decision of whether an individual who could continue to live with the aid of life support, or in a diminished or enfeebled capacity, should be allowed to die. In some cases, it refers to the idea that a person with a terminal illness and in serious condition should be allowed to commit suicide before death would otherwise occur. The concept is often referred to as dying with dignity. The question of who-if anyone-should be empowered to make these decisions is often central to the debate.

Legal documents

Most often, the idea of the right to die is related to a person's wish that caregivers allow death-for example, by not providing life support or vital medication-under certain conditions when recovery is highly unlikely or impossible. It may also refer to issues regarding physician-assisted suicide. It may be called passive euthanasia in cases where the patient is unable to make decisions about treatment. Living wills and Do Not Resuscitate orders are legal instruments that make a patient's treatment decisions known ahead of time; allowing a patient to die based on such decisions is not considered to be euthanasia. Usually these patients have also made explicit their wish to receive only palliative care to reduce pain and suffering.

Although specialized legal instruments differ from place to place, there are two more that are important in this context. The Five Wishes document allows a person to state in advance the priorities and values they wish to have honored at the end of life. And the Medical Durable Power of Attorney (or MDPOA) designates an agent to make decisions in case of incapacity, and can be used to give written guidance regarding end of life decision making. The MDPOA is generally considered to be the most powerful of all such instruments. All others may require interpretation on the part of health care providers or even court-appointed guardians; the MDPOA takes the job of interpretation out of the hands of strangers and gives it to a person selected and trusted by the individual.


A debate exists among ethicists whether the right to die is universal, or only applies under certain circumstances--such as terminal illness. A court in the American state of Montana, for example, has found that the right to die applies to those with life-threatening medical conditions. Suicide advocate Ludwig Minelli and bioethics professor Jacob Appel, in contrast, argue that all competent people have a right to end their own lives. Appel has suggested that the right to die is a useful litmus test for the overall freedom of a given society.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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