Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Assisted Suicide and the Inalienable Right to Life

Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Assisted Suicide and the Inalienable Right to Life

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This article focuses on a topic largely overlooked by both the supporters and opponents of assisted suicide. The legalization of suicide assistance damages the interests of persons who value the law's full and equal protection of their lives by designating them as eligible for help in killing themselves. Measures such as Oregon's Death with Dignity Act regard every person diagnosed as having a terminal condition as a candidate for suicide assistance, as if the protection of life was an alienable interest for this class. Thus all members of the eligible class, including those opposed to assisted suicide, lose the status of being regarded by law as having an inalienable right to the protection of life. This status-based injury should inform the standing and substantive constitutional questions raised by a state's adoption of such a policy.

In 1993, then-Indiana Democrat Governor and current U.S. Senator Evan Bayh "quipped to The [South Bend] Tribune ... that he'd sign a bill banning assisted suicide, but only if it exempted the Republican leader of the Indiana State Senate, with whom he'd wrangled for several years."(1) This remark touches on the subject of this article. Our country's Declaration of Independence regards the Republican official, and of course all citizens, as having fundamental rights that are, in the Declaration's terminology, "unalienable."(2) Therefore, even if the Indiana Senate leader had acquiesced to Mr. Bayh's assisted suicide proposal, the doctrine of inalienable rights considers such acquiescence null and void.

This aspect of the assisted suicide debate has not received adequate attention.(3) Commentary and discussion has focused instead on issues dealing with ethical, moral, and religious considerations, but the political question of whether to legalize suicide assistance necessarily turns on the consideration of inalienable rights. Are there such rights? Are they implicated by the practice of legalizing assisted suicide? This article contends that the right to the protection of life is inalienable(4) and that state policies shielding suicide assistants from prosecution based on the suicide victim's consent wrongfully treat as alienable what is in truth inalienable.

While assisted suicide advocates may dispute the claim that the right to the protection of life is inalienable, the legal arrangements corresponding to such a claim are indisputable as a political reality in the United States. We have built our system of government on the platform of fundamental rights by regarding them as inalienable possessions of all persons. Many persons have come to rely on the security provided by the status of being regarded by the government as possessing an inalienable right to the protection of life. Changing the law in such a manner as to consider the right to the protection of life to be an alienable interest for some persons, and applying this change to a class large enough to include individuals nonetheless opposed to their inclusion, raises important questions touching on the founding principles of our country.

The article will: (1) explain the significance of a distinction between the inalienable right to life itself, and the status of being regarded by law as having the inalienable right to life, (2) explore the nature of the injury caused by being regarded by law as having a right to the protection of life that is considered alienable, and (3) examine from the perspective of inalienable rights the question of standing and other constitutional issues raised by a state's legalization of suicide assistance.(5)

Inalienable Rights and The Status of Being Regarded By Law As Having Inalienable Rights: A Fundamental Distinction

The United States Declaration of Independence and many state constitutions declare that certain rights, including the right to life or the protection of life, are inalienable.(6) The concept of inalienability comes from contract theory and refers to a property interest that an owner may not surrender to another. …

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