09/02/2010 03:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Right to Decide When You're Done Living

More than 115,000 people in the Netherlands, a country of 16 million, have supported a civil initiative to start a parliamentary discussion on the right to a dignified end to life. We're not talking euthanasia here, because the voluntary ending of life in the final stages of terminal illness has been legal in the Netherlands for years, under strict conditions. This goes one step further in the development of full individual human rights.

What is it about? It is about the right of the conscious, elderly individual to a dignified death when he or she decides that life has become unlivable.

Many years ago a friend's father ended his life. He was a libertarian in his early sixties, diagnosed with cancer. He had had a rich and adventurous life and a wonderful family. The diagnosis at the time was an absolute death sentence. The man carried on as long as he felt that his life had "quality." He took care of his business, discussed his options with his family and decided that enough was enough. He hung himself. That is an awful way to go, for all involved. That man should have had the right to end his life in another way, a dignified way. If he could have chosen to die in bed, his family could have been by his side. I had to think of him when I met a friend this week who is terminally ill.

Let me stress that this is not about depressed, suicidal people who could be helped with medication or therapy. This is about elderly people who have led a healthy, full life and choose to end it out of their own free will, earlier than is medically necessary. Although arbitrary, the petition suggests an age limit of 70 years for this right.

Objections against the initiative were mostly based on the religious conviction that life is a gift from god and only god has the right to take it. There are endless rational arguments against these objections but religion and reason often don't go together very well.

Other objections are emotional, based on fear that such legislation could lead to a Soylent Green world where the government would push people over 70 to kill themselves. But again, fear is rarely rational.

The Dutch petition was presented to parliament with the request to place the subject on the agenda for debate later this year. The initiative unfortunately doesn't stand a chance, not even in the Netherlands, one of the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to the dignity and personal responsibility of the individual. As long as any political party with a religious basis takes part in a governing coalition, this subject will be immediately vetoed. But the civil initiative is an impressive show of hands.

I personally enjoy my life utterly, with all its ups and downs. But I know that there will be a moment, maybe 10 years from now, maybe 20 or even 30 or 40, when the ups are so seriously outnumbered by the downs that it would be a great comfort to have access to the means to end it in a dignified way. I might even decide not to use them. After all, life is a human right, not a duty.