Ambiguity is the mother of all social ill. The less clear we are in our social discourse, the easier it is to pull a fast one on society at large. Many states across the country have fallen victim to this through the “Death with Dignity” movement. “Right to die” legislation has been either been accepted or introduced into legislation in 28 states in our country. With this issue being raised with such regularity, it is worth investigating the merit of a so-called “right to die.”
Before we can even approach the question of whether there is a “right to die”, we need to examine what a right is. Despite all of the talk we hear about rights in our country, few can actually define what a right is. It is the steady refusal to examine rights philosophically that leads to all the muddle-headed discussion surrounding rights. A right is the moral power to possess, do, or exact something that is due to the person. Within this definition we find that there are three components. First, there is the person who owns the right. Second, there is the person who has the duty to respect the right. This can be either passive, as in a duty of non-interference, or active, as in the duty to satisfy the right, or both. These two are bound together morally by the final component, the thing in question.
One of the great dangers that our culture’s obsession with rights poses is that there are always those who will use the language of rights to mask something far more nefarious than it appears to be. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the “right to die” or “death with dignity” movement. This is why having clarity about rights in general can protect many innocent people from suffering at the hands of those who are fighting for our “right to die.” It will remove any doubt that there is such thing as a “right to die.”
First we can look at the holder of supposed right. Is death something that is due to a person? In the strictest sense, no, it is not something that is owed to someone. Rights flow either directly or indirectly from human nature itself. Ultimately any rights claim is based upon the assumption that the thing being claimed is a good. As John Paul II said many times the right to life is the “fundamental right and source of all other rights” (EV, 72). Even if you look to the foundations of modern liberalism rooted in the works of Hobbes and Locke, you will find that because all rights are given by nature, they assume that we all by nature have a self-interested attachment to our own lives. In other words, the right to life is inalienable in that it flows from the fact that life is a good by nature. This becomes clearer when we look at the person whose duty it is to respect the right. If life is an “inalienable” right then this means that there is a corresponding duty to protect life. Practically speaking, there is an obligation to protect another’s life when it is in jeopardy.
While this may appear to be quite cut and dry, reality is more complicated than that. The question of a “right to die” arises not just because autonomy has run amok in the West. Medical technology has made it so that we now have more control than ever over when and how we die. Thanks to some medical interventions, patients can be kept alive long after nature would have taken its course. From within this setting, we have to ask whether a person has a “right to be let to die.”
In essence the “right to be let to die” means that a person has the right to choose not to receive life-sustaining medical treatment. In order not to interfere with the obligation of others to protect life, the treatment must be excessively burdensome in that its benefits are outweighed by its burdens. Those responsible for taking care of the person still have the obligation to provide routine attention to the patient by bathing them, keeping them warm, controlling pain and providing food and water.
So while this means no one has the “right to die” per se, it is reasonable to assert that they do have a “right to be let to die.” The problem at this point is that people who label themselves as “Death with Dignity” advocates have piggybacked onto this legitimate right and wedded it to something else, namely a “right to be made dead.” By hiding behind a sweet sounding name, Euthanasia (which literally means “good death”), what is being claimed is a right to positive assistance in bringing about death. This means that what appears on the surface to be a mere personal freedom is really about placing an obligation to kill on another person. This obviously contradicts one’s obligation to protect life. This self-contradictory aspect of the “right to be made dead” shows why it is not a true right. It also helps to reveal what this is really about.
This movement has very little to do with medical technology or terminal illnesses. What is really being sought is acknowledgment of a right to commit suicide. Given the will, there are very few people who could stop someone that wanted to kill themselves, so why would we need legislation for a right to commit suicide? The answer is all about money and power. First, in the states where it is legal, insurance companies must pay out when someone commits suicide. This means that previously what was a deterrent, namely the financial well-being of a family, is taken out of the equation. In fact the family may end up better off financially when their loved one is dead. One can easily see that there could be familial encouragement to end it all based on a monetary windfall.
Second, this is ultimately about some people having the power to determine who lives and who dies. If we recognize a “right to be dead” then there is a corresponding “duty to make dead.” Who is the one who must exercise this duty and when should it be exercised? Already we can see how the person and the proxies could be compromised, but what if they are not coming around to what is obvious to doctors and other “experts”? While no one likes slippery slope arguments, this is precisely what has happened in places where a “right to die” has been recognized like the Netherlands. The emphasis is no longer on the right to die, but the obligation to take the life that has been deemed unworthy of life.
What makes this particularly evil is that it plays into people’s emotions. No one wants to be a burden to their loved ones, especially when there seems to be a painless way to avoid that. As usual though, it is not enough to have our hearts in the right place; we must get our heads their too. Demanding clarity when it comes to rights, especially the “right to die,” is a good place to start the journey from our hearts to our heads.