From Jack Kevorkian to Terry Schiavo, much media attention has been given in recent years to the question of the right to die. Most American states have laws against taking one’s own life and many also have specific laws against assisted suicide. Many others charge those who would assist with suicide with manslaughter or attempted murder. Opponents of euthanasia say that there is no provision in American law for the right to die. Many specific rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights and others have been granted through the Constitution and its amendments, but nowhere has the law granted a person the right to die.
Proponents claim the right is inherent, God-given and a matter of free will. The truth lies somewhere in between. Americans should have the right to determine when their lives should end. That right is granted them by the Declaration of Independence. Americans have the right to die, as it is included in the right to life, the right of self-determination and the pursuit of happiness. The first legal standard allowing Americans to choose to die should be the words of founding father Thomas Jefferson.
In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said that people should have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ” By simple logic, death is an inherent part of life and therefore should be protected by Jefferson’s words. As death is the ending of life and the right to life is guaranteed by the Declaration, it is clear that citizens should be afford the right to die as they choose. By guaranteeing people the right to life and liberty, Jefferson may have been simply spouting the philosophies of John Locke and others, but he inadvertently guaranteed people the liberty to choose their own death.
Clearly, in 1776, the concept of keeping people alive through the use of machines was not a consideration. However, Jefferson makes it clear that self-determination is a right of the people. It is that very self-determination that gave the American colonies the right to revolt against England and form their own country. That same right of self-determination should also apply to the average citizen. Nothing is more a matter of personal freedom than the right to die. Other cultures have long practiced this form of self-determination.
In many cultures, the sick, infirmed or elderly would leave their society to die when they decided it was time. The concept that society has become more civilized should not prevent people from making this choice if they desire. The reality is that modern medicine has allowed many people to live beyond what would once have been a normal life expectancy. Many of those people regret their longevity as they feel isolated, due to the deaths of contemporaries, and feel the guilt of being a financial or emotional burden on their families.
Others do not want to face the pain of chronic disease. These people have earned the right to do as they please and by the theory of self-determination, they should be granted that right. Finally, the Declaration grants people the right to “the pursuit of happiness. ” Again, despite the advances of modern medicine, there is no guarantee that simply lengthening a person’s life grants them additional happiness. In fact, some elderly persons are simply lonely and in pain. The pursuit of happiness for them might include an end to their suffering and as such, the right to die.
The simple matter is that by guaranteeing people the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and by predicating our society on the right of self-determination, America has already made it clear that the right to die is inherent in our beliefs. It should be as clear as the right to freedom of the press or the right to bear arms. Unfortunately, though we preach a separation of church and state, America is also a religious country and the right to die will not be acknowledged until the fear of the moral repercussions is overcome.
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