The Right to Die

On December 21, an Italian doctor, Mario Riccio, disconnected a respirator that was keeping Piergiorgio Welby alive. Welby, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and was paralyzed, had battled unsuccessfully in the Italian courts for the right to die. After Riccio gave him a sedative and switched off the respirator, Welby said “thank you” three times to his wife, his friends, and his doctor. Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.

Welby’s request to die was widely publicized in Italy, where it led to heated debate. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether Riccio will be charged with any offense. At least one Italian politician has called for his arrest on a charge of homicide.

Welby’s death raises two questions, which need to be distinguished. One is whether a person has a right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. The other is whether voluntary euthanasia is ethically defensible.

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