All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 1991

The Right Not to Live

Last December a pair of legal decisions drew national attention. In one case a Michigan judge dismissed a first-degree murder charge against Dr. Jack Kevorkian, inventor of a “suicide machine.” Janet Adkins, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, had used this machine to self-administer drugs that caused her first to lose consciousness and then to die.

In the other case a Missouri judge ruled that the parents of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in an irreversible coma since a 1983 car accident, could remove her feeding tube and thereby bring about her death.

What these two cases involve, of course, is the so-called right to die. Many have questioned whether we possess such a right. Indeed, there are those who argue that in order to preserve our right to life, the state should intervene to prevent us from killing ourselves.

I would like to argue that those holding such views are fundamentally confused about what it means to say that we have a right to something. More precisely, they are guilty of ignoring the difference between rights and duties. Indeed, I would even argue not only that we have a right to die, but that this right is in a sense included in our right to life.

What does it mean, after all, to say that I have a right to something, e.g., that I have a right to that rusted-out Plymouth Valiant in my driveway? It means in part that I can use it and can restrict others’ access to it (and that the state will back me up when I do so). It also means, however, that when I am done using it, I can give it away, sell it, dismantle it—indeed, that I can blow it up, as long as I do so in a way that does not expose others to risk.

If the state defends my ability to use the Valiant but obstructs my ability to dispose of it, the state to some extent transforms my right to own the car into a duty to own it. And in the case of my Valiant, it is a duty that, as the years go by and the steel crumbles into rust, will become ever more burdensome.

Turning our attention back to matters of life and death, if the state declares that our right to life cannot be relinquished—if, that is, it declares that we cannot decide when and how we end our lives—it has not only deprived us of an important element of self-determination, but it has to some extent transformed our right to life into a duty to live—or, in the case of brain-dead people, into a duty to go on breathing. And it has harmed us in doing so.

It is, by the way, important to keep in mind that those who argue that we have a right to die are not arguing that sick people should be put to death against their will (they are not, that is, arguing that we have a duty to die); rather, they are arguing that terminally ill patients who are sound of mind should be allowed to die, if they choose to do so.

Furthermore, many advocates of a right to die are arguing that this right involves not just the right to be starved to death, as was the case with Nancy Cruzan, but the right to die quickly and painlessly, as was the case with Janet Adkins.

We would be mistaken, then, to suppose that the right to life is somehow in conflict with the right to die. To the contrary, the right to die is an inherent part of the right to life. And anyone who truly values the lives of his fellow human beings will respect not only their decisions about how they live their lives, but also their decisions about how they die their deaths.

  • Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.