The case for assisted suicide and euthanasia, at least as it has been presented, is that we may freely dispense with certain moral distinctions, once considered of some importance — between killing yourself and having someone else kill you; between refraining from prolonging life and deliberately ending it — while continuing to insist on any number of others.
The issue is thus invariably cast as if the practice would be reserved for adults of sound mind, in the final stages of a terminal illness, suffering unbearable physical pain, freely consenting to have done to them what they would surely choose to do themselves were they not so disabled. In its most complete form, the patient must not only consent, but actually initiate the process in some way (hence “assisted” suicide, versus euthanasia, where someone else does the deed). At all events we are assured the task would be performed by a licensed physician, no doubt with a sterilized needle.
So it is that a cause advanced in the name of a limitless individual freedom (self-annihilation, it is said, being the ultimate assertion of personal autonomy) defends itself with reference to how acutely limited that freedom would actually be. Advocates, impatient with such arbitrary distinctions as that between suicide and assisted suicide — of what use is the right to kill oneself, they ask, if you are physically incapable of carrying it out? — are nevertheless at pains to preserve the distinction between terminal illness and mere depression, between adults and children, between the mentally competent and incompetent, between personally consenting and having someone else consent on your behalf.
But it cannot be. By erasing the one distinction, they eviscerate the rest. For the right asserted in this case is not merely a negative right, in the old-fashioned sense of the right to be left alone, but a positive right, a claim on others, entitling one to their assistance. It is not a civil liberty, such as the right to vote, implying a degree of competency or at least free will such that it might justifiably be restricted to adults, but a more fundamental sort of right, like the right not to be tortured, that does not hinge upon agency in the rights-holders, but inheres in them simply as human beings (or even animals).