The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

A Right to Die is a Right to Life

“I don’t want to die alone!” were the stinging words of 69-year-old Nancy Crick of Australia. Terminally ill, in constant pain, consistently nauseous and suffering diarrhea Nancy Crick decided any meaningful life was over for her. She simply wanted to die.

But in Australia “assisted suicide” was illegal though suicide itself was not. The law was such that merely being present during a suicide is seen as assistance and could carry a penalty of life in prison.

In spite of this 21 friends and relatives stayed byCrick’s side as she took the drugs that would end her suffering. She video taped a statement saying: “It’smy death. I’m doing it and no one else.” She told the press “The thing that upsets me most is that the law says I can kill myself any time I want to, but no one can be with me because they just might have helped me. That’s just rubbish, and I don’t see why I should die alone. I don’t want to die alone.”

Opponents of assisted suicide argue human life is sacred and must be preserved. But it is the unique sacredness of human life, which they in fact, deny. For these people life is merely the state of not being dead. It has nothing to do with all those characteristics of being human that separates us from a plant.

A plant is either dead or alive. But for people life is not merely an on/off switch. Life is the ability to choose, it is the ability to enjoy existence, it is the ability to function and grow. For Nancy Crick life had ceased long before she swallowed some pills.

So-called “right to life” groups refused to acknowledge Nancy Crick’s humanity. For them she was the same as a plant. She was either alive or dead and that is all that mattered. But Nancy Crick was a rational being with the ability to choose and determine for herself. She wasn’t a plant without the ability to think. She was a rights-bearing entity unlike trees or weeds.

To respect life requires we respect the choices of the person living that life. The right-to-life people don’t do that. They are not advocates of rights to life just merely opponents of death. A right, to have any meaning, requires the righ to deny it as well. My right to life means I can choose not to live when that choice becomes necessary. To call the denial of choice a “right” is absurd. You don’t grant a right by taking it away.

The fact is most of the people who demanded Nancy Crick continue to suffer did so out of a religious conviction. They accepted the idea that human beings have no rights except to obey the dictates of a supreme being whose will they just happen to be able to discern. For them human beings are the property of one deity or another.

Modern secular nations were founded on liberal principles which, while respecting the rights of individuals to be religious, did not use the law to either promote or impede religious values. As such it is not a proper function of government to prevent individuals from ending their own lives when they see fit, nor to prevent others from assisting when requested. Opponents of choice argue such assistance is murder. But all death is not murder just as all sex is not rape. The critical factor is consent. Without consent death would be murder and sex would be rape. With consent neither is a violation of rights, and thus not a proper object of criminal law.

The Western liberal tradition argues proper government is a compact between the people and the state. What powers government has are those the people themselves give it. And the people cannot grant the government a power, which they themselves, do not possess. If we as individuals do not have the right to interfere with the lives, and sometimes voluntary deaths of others, then we can not give that power to the State. If as Thomas Jefferson said, government is founded to protect our rights then how does the state affirm our rights by taking them away from us? Laws forbidding the right to die are basically religious in nature and hence illegitimate.

The refusal to grant individuals the right to end their own life is not a slippery slope leading to genocide any more than granting individuals control over their own sex life necessarily leads to rape. Instead it is the acknowledgement that human life is fundamentally different from any other living entity. We humans can make the choice whether we want to live or not.

That choice does not deny life but affirms it in the most fundamental way.

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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.

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