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The Right to Live, The Right to Die

Humility, please.

by Barnabas
October 29, 2003

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The Right to Live, The Right to Die_Barnabas-Humility, please I suppose someone morally arrogant enough to style himself an ethicist ought not duck the tragedy in the news being played out on national television, in which a husband wants to give his wife the opportunity to die while her parents want to withhold it.

It is impossible even to state this conundrum without bias one way or the other. As stated above, the positive word “opportunity” is assigned to the husband’s position, and the negative word “withhold” to the position of the parents. It could be stated the other way: the parents want to give their daughter the opportunity to live, while her husband wants to withhold it.

Classic moral philosophy. Christian theology, and the Bible do not help us much, though I am one who embraces and is part of all three traditions. When these seminal works were conceived (or revealed) and written, the problems we encounter were beyond the imagination of the writers. For them, “heart-lung machine,” would have no frame of reference. In their world, people who couldn’t swallow, starved; people who stopped breathing were dead; and heart stoppage was irreversible. They didn’t ask “who lives, who dies, who decides” because every person about whom the questions might be asked was already dead.

So with great humility we ask and answer these questions today. We cannot appeal to the ancients because it’s our generation that created the ethical dilemmas. In the developed nations, we have learned to cheat death with efficiency.

We can do it, which is not the same as knowing what we are doing. The ability to do things is a fact without ethical content. Knowing what we are doing—that is, having some grasp of the probable outcomes of our actions—does have ethical content, whether positive or negative. We didn’t know what we were doing may be a fact but it is not an excuse. We should have known, or at least proceeded very tentatively before being overwhelmed with heartbreaking cases.

Wherever you stand in this debate, there is no realism on either side unless you acknowledge that the right to live is equally balanced with the right to die; neither stands alone as self-evident. The right to live obviously does not extend to every circumstance, and the right to die does not extend to suicide. The person with the will and the means to commit suicide may exercise both will and means toward living. The right to die means that there comes a time when a dying person needs to die ("as a sleepy man needs to sleep," wrote Stewart Alsop when he was dying). For others to impede death only to perpetuate dying is a moral perspective very difficult to defend; it confuses dying with living.

The tough call faced by loved ones, caregivers, judges, and governors in each case is whether this particular very ill person is dying, or living. It is not enough to perpetuate “life” as an abstract principle, for that may be to prolong the dying process. We are to perpetuate living, while protecting the right to die.

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