OK, cards on the table. I got lazy. I was going to post something last week, but then I got really into this TV show called Newsroom and I decided to focus all of my remaining attention on finally finishing Cloud Atlas. And then I was totally going to write some really witty comments about Biden’s performance in the VP debate but I saw that some arse on CNN had already stolen my words and written an ‘article’ or something so I was all like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOpH4R6SkNA.
So yeah. Apology over.
To complement one of my international law courses from first year, I’ve taken a further module this year – the International Protection of Human Rights. It’s a bit dry at the moment, but we had a spark of passion in the class when the aforementioned question popped up. Should we be able to choose the manner and timing of our own demise?
Here’s my essential premise – human rights are as much a moral concept as a legal concept, and as such we have a moral obligation to ensure that people are as free as possible in their everyday lives. This, ultimately, means that people should be allowed to follow their own religion, should be allowed to say what they want to say, should be allowed to have consensual adult relationships with those they want to have relationships with. Man should be able to carve out his own path to the best of his ability. Laws should not stop you from being the person you want to be in life. So why should it be any different in death? We should, as a matter of principle, provide the legal protection for a citizen to enact a dignified passage into death.
Although codified International Law has arguably existed since the 17th Century, with the Treaty of Westphalia, “human rights” were not mentioned in any authoritative document until the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. Entering into force a month after the end of the Second World War, the charter was as much the legal foundations for a post crisis world as it was a normative vision of what that world should look like – as can be seen from the first few words of the preamble:
“WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold misery to mankind,
and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women…
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”
The language used is purposefully emotive. “untold misery” and the “scourge of war”? The terms draw any reader into the strongest force behind governing the Charter – that of moral necessity. And yet the document is the basis of ‘legal’ war, economic and social relations. International law simply cannot be untied from its moral underpinnings. It is a normative practice.
To throw human rights in as the very second statement in the Charter is to subject them to the same framework of justification. We tried to craft a new world in which human rights are upheld because that is what humans should do. People should be protected from affronts against personal dignity, insitutional inequality, the scourge of war. Such is the necessity of a modern society.
So where’s the issue?
Right to Life
Human rights then gained their own document in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Although passed through the United Nations General Assembly, the document was widely considered to be too authoritative and was thus broken down into two distinct Treaties in 1966 – The ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and The ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Both entered into force in 1976.
The only legal issue for people that oppose a so called right to death that I can think of comes from Article 6 of the ICCPR:
Every human has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
Many feel that allowing people to kill themselves (to put it bluntly) violates the core principle of human rights – protecting life. To return to the Charter, in 1945 it was proclaimed that international law is there to promote social progress and “better standards of life”. It is your inherent right as a human to have the best care possible, and to enjoy the best standard of life possible in your position – but that is a far cry away from allowing you to die. If anything, that would be a violation of our obligations as fellow humans. Such death is arbitrary.
Other arguments are much stronger. Where do you draw the line? Do you possess a right to die at any point in your life, or just in the throws of a terminal disease? At what point in the diagnosis of the disease does the right enter the picture? How can we trust someone suffering to make an objective decision about their most precious resource? What about the societal pressures? If a grandmother knows that she could survive for another hospitalised 6 months with her current condition, but feels pressured into doing the “right thing” by either the hospital staff or her family, has the right to die not triumphed unfairly over her right to live?
Ok, the argument says. Human Rights are moral concepts. But doesn’t the state have a moral obligation to stop “irrational suicides”? Don’t we have a moral obligation to prevent the abuse of this right to kill off the weak and the sick that burden the country?
I accept how contentious the issue is, but before we touch upon the specifics I think we have to step back to what the role of Human Rights are. As it says towards the end of the Charter excerpt above, the treaty has to:
“reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, [and] in the dignity and worth of the human person…”.
In my mind the “fundamental” element of human rights is not that we continue to live, but that we continue to live in a manner that enforces the “dignity and worth of the human person”. If a person feels that they are existing in a situation which robs them of either their dignity or their worth, human rights are absent. The logical extension of this is that WE THE PEOPLE have a moral obligation to ensure that said situation ends. If this means helping somebody to have legal representation, so be it. If it means helping somebody to leave an oppressive society and seek asylum, so be it. And if it means helping somebody to end their life, so be it.
The obvious example is one of terminal disease. Some legal practice does exist – Oregon, Washington and Montana permit assisted suicide if the patient is of “sound mind”, (as confirmed by a doctor and other witnesses), and if they have a terminal disease – and I completely support this. I’ve seen couples struggle with the emotional consequences of terminal disease, and the lack of dignity the patient experiences as a disease advances and removes motor functions. There is a perceptible point at which quality of life falls away in favour of the maintenance of life. At that point, how dare we the people declare those that want out to be irrational? How dare we the people force a husband to endure the humiliation and distress of being unable to communicate with his wife, or even recognise her through the waves of blinding pain?
Obviously, I accept that basing law on emotional triggers alone is a dangerous road to walk down. But I refer again to the United Nations Charter, 1945. Its very power comes from the moral necessities it awakens. Human Rights are inherently normative. We should respond to stories of distress and legally empower the maintenance of fundamental freedoms. We should ensure that the right to die is a human right.
In terms of abuse, I have real trouble with commentators jumping from the notion that once someone is empowered to do something they will be forced to do it. Similarly, I heavily oppose the idea that legalising something opens up a culture of pressure. It seems just as ridiculous to me to assume that the elderly will be pressured into ending their lives because a dying man has been allowed to allleviate his suffering, as to assume that legalising marijuana use would pressure people into smoking. Both elements are choices. Rights.
Should this right extend beyond terminal disease? Personally, I think so. We the people should always encourage support for those that need it, help to those that seek an end to the lack of dignity, opportunities for those that feel worthless. But it is ultimately a human’s prerogative to end their life. If a human feels like their existence is incompatible with personal dignity and worth, they should be able to end it in a dignified manner. Why force these people into isolation in their final minutes? The reason that provisions for state assisted suicide outside of terminal illness have never been approached is that they are both a) far too divisive to be proposed and b) seemingly unnecessary. After all, if you’re not bedridden you can sort out your own death in your own time.
However, I think it is incompatible with the idea of human rights that I advocated for us to ignore the plight of those that wish to end their lives that don’t have terminal illnesses. If we want universal protection of dignity, we have to provide the right to die to everyone – irrespective of medical condition.
The specifics behind such an arrangement would form an entirely new debate, so I won’t touch on them now. But food for thought right?
Reward for those that finished this