Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Essay

Euthanasia and assisted dying: the illusion of autonomy—an essay by Ole Hartling

BMJ 2021; 374 doi: (Published 09 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2135

Read our coverage of the assisted dying debate

  1. Ole Hartling, former chairman
  1. Danish Council of Ethics, Denmark
  1. hartling{at}

As a medical doctor I have, with some worry, followed the assisted dying debate that regularly hits headlines in many parts of the world. The main arguments for legalisation are respecting self-determination and alleviating suffering. Since those arguments appear self-evident, my book Euthanasia and the Ethics of a Doctor’s Decisions—An Argument Against Assisted Dying1 aimed to contribute to the international debate on this matter.

I found it worthwhile to look into the arguments for legalisation more closely, with the hope of sowing a little doubt in the minds of those who exhibit absolute certainty in the matter. This essay focuses on one point: the concept of “autonomy.”

(While there are several definitions of voluntary, involuntary, and non-voluntary euthanasia as well as assisted dying, assisted suicide, and physician assisted suicide, for the purposes of brevity in this essay, I use “assisted dying” throughout.)


Currently, in richer countries, arguments for legalising assisted dying frequently refer to the right to self-determination—or autonomy and free will. Our ability to self-determine seems to be unlimited and our right to it inviolable. The public’s response to opinion poll questions on voluntary euthanasia show that people can scarcely imagine not being able to make up their own minds, nor can they imagine not having the choice. Moreover, a healthy person answering a poll may have difficulty imagining being in a predicament where they simply would not wish to be given the choice.

I question whether self-determination is genuinely possible when choosing your own death. In my book, I explain that the choice will always be made in the context of a non-autonomous assessment of your quality of life—that is, an assessment outside your control.1

All essential decisions that we make are made in relation to other people. Our decisions are affected by other people, and …

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