At Liberty to Die

The Battle for Death with Dignity in America

224 pages

June, 2012

ISBN: 9780814791042



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Howard Ball is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and University Scholar at the University of Vermont and Adjunct Professor of Law at Vermont Law School.

All books by Howard Ball

"Ball's arguments are concise, compelling, and backed with considerable case law. This volume is highly recommended for upper-level undergraduates and above in law, philosophy, and the medical humanities interested in the 'right to die' debates. Summing up: Highly recommended." —Choice
Over the past hundred years, average life expectancy in America has nearly doubled, due largely to scientific and medical advances, but also as a consequence of safer working conditions, a heightened awareness of the importance of diet and health, and other factors. Yet while longevity is celebrated as an achievement in modern civilization, the longer people live, the more likely they are to succumb to chronic, terminal illnesses. In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years, with a majority of American deaths attributed to influenza, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or other diseases. In 2000, the average life expectancy was nearly 80 years, and for too many people, these long lifespans included cancer, heart failure, Lou Gehrig’s disease, AIDS, or other fatal illnesses, and with them, came debilitating pain and the loss of a once-full and often independent lifestyle. In this compelling and provocative book, noted legal scholar Howard Ball poses the pressing question: is it appropriate, legally and ethically, for a competent individual to have the liberty to decide how and when to die when faced with a terminal illness?
At Liberty to Die charts how, the right of a competent, terminally ill person to die on his or her own terms with the help of a doctor has come deeply embroiled in debates about the relationship between religion, civil liberties, politics, and law in American life. Exploring both the legal rulings and the media frenzies that accompanied the Terry Schiavo case and others like it, Howard Ball contends that despite raging battles in all the states where right to die legislation has been proposed, the opposition to the right to die is intractable in its stance. Combining constitutional analysis, legal history, and current events, Ball surveys the constitutional arguments that have driven the right to die debate.


  • "Comprehensive, thoroughly engrossing, surprisingly balanced! At Liberty to Die is certain to become the definitive history of the wrenching debate over physician assisted death. Highly recommended!"

    —Tinsley E. Yarbrough, Emeritus professor of Political Science, East Carolina University

  • "A comprehensive and engaging history of the legal and political battles in courts and legislatures to recognize terminally-ill individuals' 'right to die with dignity.' A timely and informed contribution to an important and growing debate." 

    —David M. O'Brien, Spicer Professor, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

  • "Professor Ball provides an informative, thoughtful, and well-documented analysis...deftly set against a portrayal of the changing nature of death and dying in America—especially the locus of death and its attendant circumstances—a back story that is essential for understanding the impetus undergirding rights claims during this period."

    —Daniel Hillyard, Southern Illinois University Carbondale

  • "Ball here makes an important contribution to the growing literature on end-of-life issues with this legal history of the right to die in America....Law and political science students, along with activists, will find this a helpful book owing to its careful analysis of legislative and judicial actions across different states over the last 15 years as well as its careful delineation of the legal issues that animate debates over physician-assisted death."

    Library Journal

  • "Ball's arguments are concise, compelling, and backed with considerable case law. This volume is highly recommended for upper-level undergraduates and above in law, philosophy, and the medical humanities interested in the 'right to die' debates. Summing up: Highly recommended." 


  • "In this valuable presentation of a large, important topic, Howard Ball skillfully narrates the history of the key cases and the legal, medical and political developments in a fast-moving process."


  • "In his recently published book, Howard Ball does a superb job of documenting and explaining the key legal principles that frame the right-to-die debate in the United States. At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death with Dignity in America illustrates clearly that jurisprudential matters are Ball's strong suit, and he plays his cards well, touching on all the key court cases while also covering the battles to enact right-to-die legislation in several states. The writing is crisp; the key points of disagreement are clearly laid out, the coverage is both balanced and comprehensive, and the context of the legal maneuvering provided by Ball throughout make his book an interesting as well as an educational read."

    —James M. Hoefler, Political Science Quarterly