As with many I know, I have a “Living Will” that states unequivocally that I do not wish my life maintained by machines. Seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it?
Well, let me complicate it: do I have the right to make such a demand?
The U.S. Declaration of Independence declares my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It fails to mention my right to die. The U.S. Constitution, when listing the Bill of Rights, is also silent on this matter. However, there are many people, organizations, and States arguing the matter with energy and conviction. As mentioned, the Declaration of Independence seems to indicate that I have a right to life. Presumably, this must be my life I have a right to and not some else’s life. A “right” is an abstract idea of that which is due to a person or governmental body by law or tradition or nature. A right is not something that somebody gives you; it is something that nobody can take away. So, I have a right to my life.
Do I have a right to terminate that life? If it is mine, like the computer I’m typing this on, then it is a possession. I have a right to dispose of my possessions as I see fit, don’t I? If my life is my possession, then I can do with it as I will.
As late as 1993, six States still had laws on the books making suicide a crime. 49 of 50 States seem to believe that assisted suicide is illegal and a crime. Oregon doesn’t think this way. In 1993, the people of that State made, under specific circumstances involving painful terminal illness, assisted suicide legal.
OTOH, the medical profession has, theoretically, an overriding maxim to “do no harm.” My living will could force some practitioner to do me harm, couldn’t it? The simple definition of suicide is: “The act of killing yourself.” Refusing to permit machinery to sustain your life will result in the termination of your life. How is that not killing yourself? How is my living will not designed to make the medical profession accomplices in killing myself? If I ask the doctors to remove a loved one from life support and that loved one dies, did I and the medicos commit murder? On the machine they were alive if not well; off they are dead.
What is really interesting about the question is that it begs, pleads, and demands the answer to another question: who owns my life? Is it mine or is it the property of the people of the U.S.? If the latter, they get to decide when it can be terminated. They do this by passing laws. If it is mine, no law they pass has any bearing on when and if I choose to terminate same. My Living Will is then an exercise of my right to life.
What is most worrisome to me is that, should I enter a coma as is likely in many terminal illnesses, I no longer have any control over my life. It is now in the hands of people who are not me pursuing their own interests whether those interests are pure concern for my welfare or an abstract principle about the sanctity of life. Now, that is scary!