Sumner is a 71-year old professor of philosophy in the University of Toronto who is contemplating his own death as he ages towards that direction. This book is the result of his long and serious study on the question as to whether we should be allowed by law to choose the hour and manner of our death, bearing in mind that assisted death is either suicide or euthanasia. Before he discusses the diverse approaches by legal institutions across the world, he takes us through the moral and ethical issues and how the debate takes shape. He presses forward with a clear discussion on the two concepts of death - biological (irreversible cessation of the integrated functioning of the organism) and personal (the irreversible cessation of whatever psychological states or capacities of a person). He also discusses the moral claims and justifications for the cessation of medical treatment, and importantly, what constitutes medical treatment. In many cases the action sought was the removal of feeding tubes which some regard as basic and essential requirement while others consider it a medical treatment.
Sumner makes it clear that he is in favour of autonomy and is a pro-choice proponent, but he writes clearly and objectively in presenting the best arguments from opposing sides without being judgmental. Religious people as well as non-religious people who oppose assisted suicide will not be offended by the book, and may indeed find his arguments helpful in their own positions.
Part of his discussion on the legal landscape as he calls it involved detailed studies of landmark cases such as the case of Karen Quinlen and Nancy Curzon. However, he seemed to have omitted the latest and most controversial case of Terri Schiavo. For that the reader might want to refer to Jon Eisenberg's "Right vs Right to Die", and if one wishes to read the partisan views, there is a book written by Schiavo's parents, the Schindlers, called "A Life That Matters", and one by her husband, Michael Schiavo, "Terri - The Truth". The one other drawback is the absence of an index to the book. These are two further reasons in wishing Sumner a long and healthy life so that a second edition of this marvellous book can be made even better.
As Sumner says, "Euthanasia is easiest to justify when it is voluntary, hardest when it is not." The fundamental issue is not so much about "rights" but what one's views are as to whether human life is sacred. That calls for a clear understanding as to what that word means and if there is such a thing as the sanctity of life that prohibits the taking of a life under any circumstances. Unless we clarify that, rights and wrongs about the taking of a life can be argued without conclusion. One small step to approaching death, whether we are pro-choice or pro-life, is to remember Seneca's words: "Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not."