Humans are free by nature. They enjoy right to self-preservation given the notion that humans themselves are the owners of their lives. This ownership of life bestows the right to make decisions on individual life solely on the owner of life; that is, the right to life and the right to die. As a result, individuals make decisions on whether their lives worth continuous existence or not on the basis of their encounter with the challenges of life, society, and health. To many, pains, agonies, indignities, and poor health vitiate good life. Therefore, continuous existence in such a situation debases the quality of being humans, according to many people. As a result, euthanasia and/or suicide are at the top of the decision ladder of such people in the above category. The question of whether or not individuals have right to end their lives by themselves or through another is subjected to moral, philosophical, and societal debates with different literature, policymakers, and professionals questioning the rationale behind the decision to end one’s life by oneself or through the help of another person. This paper aims at expanding the debate by asking whether ownership of life leads to the right to die.
By virtue of our existence in the state of nature, we (human beings) possess natural right not to be deprived of our lives by anyone. The highest amongst unannounced rights in the state of nature is the right to life. In this regard, the life of an individual became sacrosanct in the state of nature even though there was no higher authority to enforce the right. Given the exodus from the state of nature into the political or the civil society, human beings aggregate their natural rights and put them under the watch of a trustee for the purpose of protection and enforcement of the rights and the prohibition of violation of the rights. Through natural right to life, individual ownership of life was proclaimed in the state of nature and in the political state, ownership of life still remains with individual since one of the ways for the state to legitimize its political power is to safeguard the right to life of the members of the society.
Therefore, individuals possess the right to make decisions affecting their lives. That is individuals may choose how they want to live their lives or what they wish to become. Given the natural right of humans, a man may decide to become a woman, while a transgender may decide to remain so if so wishes. By extension, nature right and ownership of life of an individual may be extended to cover the right to take decisions over the body and/or soul. Although God gives life according to the naturalist, the soul is housed in the body. So, every individual tends to lay claim to ownership of life because he or she carries life in his or her body. Therefore, an individual carrying a life in his body is the most reliable custodian of the body and soul. Somehow, this gives right of ownership of life to individuals and the decisions to preserve life or expunge life from the body ultimately lies with the individual carrying life in his body. In a sense, a right to life and a right to die belong to individuals. However, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not recognize the religious view linking human life to an intrinsic and inherent value which suggests that all humans enjoy a list of natural rights by being humans (Dowbiggin, 2007:8).
The emergence of the political state means that the behaviors of individuals vis-à-vis their rights are governed by positive legal law and not by nature anymore. Therefore, non-naturalist scholars argued that there was never such right as natural right. According to them, rights are created by the state through legislation only and it allocates rights and obligations to different categories of people in the society. So, individuals in a civil society lay claim to legal rights created by the state only and not those imaginary rights purportedly assumed in the state of nature. State law gives credence to the positive rights of individuals by prohibiting one individual from causing or ending the life of another individual. In view of the naturalists, this is a typical example of enforcement of the natural right of an individual in the political state. However, if the state protects right to life of members of the society by preventing individuals from taking the lives of another, why does the state that preserves life also end life? There are different occasions where the state may order the execution of any members of the society who committed a crime liable to death penalty. For example, Article 2 of the Human Right Act protects right to life by stating that no one, whether the government or individual, may attempt to end one's life. And in effect, such right to life is considered as ‘absolute right' without consideration for any derogation. The Article, however, gives exception to state-led execution within the context of law enforcement with regard to public safety and public order (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2018). Therefore, states may act as the guardian of life and also as a terminator of life under law enforcement, whereas individuals themselves may decide to preserve their lives given that they enjoy everything about their lives. In contrast, they may decide to end their lives if they perceive that life is worthless due to unbearable suffering, ill health, misfortune, and indignity. The big question is, do human beings have the right to end their lives?
According to contemporary Christians, we live in a sinful world where sufferings have to be endured as consequences of sin, and Christians should be obedient unto death in Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-11 (Dowbiggin, 2007:14). But if humans are expected to undergo pains, where is the link between the dignity of life and suffering? Sufferings tend to stripe the human’s life of dignity. And if dignity is taken away from the discussion on human life, the human body cannot be regarded as the biblical temple of God which must not be desecrated. The “ten commandments”, in part, says that no one should bring death to his fellow human being but it does not say that no man should kill himself. So, if a man in a vegetative state requests for suicide pills in order to end his life due to suffering, can the act of offering him the suicide pills by another person be considered an obligation or duty to a fellow human being? Thomas Aquinas claims that suicide violates natural self-love meant to preserve humankind; that suicide inflicts agony on the community to which the person who commits self-death belongs; and thirdly, that suicide violates our obligation to God who gave us life as a gift and who is in the best position to determine the duration of such life (Choibi, 2017).
Euthanasia and Suicide: the brief historical context
Within the context of natural right and the Ten Commandments, John Locke argues that an individual owns his or her life. And no one is empowered by nature to take another person’s life without his consent. In one breath, Locke sounded like thou he was a paternalist. In another breath, however, he agreed to the principle of permissive right in the second part of the above statement. It, therefore, means that an individual may delegate the right to end his life to another person without the latter violating the natural right of the former. The important element in this regard is consent from the owner of the life to be taken. Also, since the ownership of life belongs to the holder, it, therefore, suggests that an individual may also end his life by himself if he so wishes or delegates the right to another person.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the concept of self-killing was based on the idea that only those who are adults and educated and able to rationalize and moralize suicide on the ground that continued existence is worthless should be allowed to embrace suicide and not a self-killing that is purely based on problems of life. The killing of the mentally and physically handicapped patients in the aborted third Reich in Germany in the period preceding the Second World War was contrary to the above illustration (Dowbiggin, 2007:9; 91-92). Nazi Germany supervised the killing of more than 200, 000 men, woman, and children through involuntary Euthanasia on the claim that the people were mentally and physically challenged and hopeless at the same time. This argument, however, may have provoked the 1942 debate on euthanasia in the American Journal of Psychiatry between Foster Kennedy (1884-1952), a neurologist and Leo Kanner (1894-1981), a child psychiatrist. This great debate took place between 1941 and 1942 in the United States. The debate focuses on the feeble minded people in the society to whom euthanasia should apply.
According to Kennedy, euthanasia is necessary for the feeble minded people because they are "hopelessly unfit" to live. But to those who are facing health challenges as a result of diseases should be given a second chance on the ground that they may recover from the disease. Therefore, in the case of the first set of people, the immortal souls must be released from the bondage of freedom caused by the defective body that houses the soul. Even though Kennedy and Kanner agreed that idiots and imbeciles have no importance in the society, Kanner disagrees with Kennedy on the definition and classification of the feeble minded people. He argued that intelligence is not significant to a person's worth in the society because the feeble minded people also contribute to the economy of the United States. Therefore, a group of individuals with a deficiency in cognitive, emotional and constructively conative potentials that make them useless in any sense of human existence is not worth living. But individuals whose limitations are only connected to the intellectual standard of the society to which they belong should not be seen as hopeless because they only find themselves in a society that is built on a standard that demands more intellectuality.1
However, the paternalists argue that the right to life is mandatory. They claim that there is only right, that is the right to life and there is no right to die. The founding fathers, on the other hand, claim that the right to die is the opposite of the right to life because the right to life is discretionary and not mandatory. The extreme anti-paternalists, however, agree with the conceptual view of the founding fathers on the assumption that the right to life is discretionary. However, the extreme anti-paternalists add that the right to life is a permissive right that needs to be exercised discretionarily within the limits set by the rights of others, on the one hand, and public interest, on the other hand (Feinberg, 1977:254-257). Whereas, Kutner (1968:545) argues that self-death is an irrevocable act that cannot be highly permitted.
Suicide: between rationalization and philosophy
All actions leading to self-death do not amount to suicide. In defining suicide, it is always important to limit the scope of its definition to the situation, intention/behavior, and action leading to self-death. A man who decides to take his life by himself or by requesting the assistance of someone else on the basis of unfavorable conditions that make his continuous existence seems worthless may be considered to have committed suicide or assisted suicide. The decision to take his life and the action that follows it must be relevant to the existing conditions perceived to have rendered a life worthless. For example, a martyr who killed himself in order to satisfy a cause may not be regarded to have committed suicide (Shuriye, 2011:210). This type of scenario is strictly related to Islam where some people are indoctrinated to the point that they consider blowing themselves off in a self-defined jihadist war with the conviction that they are dying for God. Therefore, they commit suicide in support of and on behalf of God in their views.
This act, according to Shuriye, has no correlation with suicide. In 1978, Beauchamp made an attempt to classify acts of self-sacrifice and self-willed death resulting from the refusal of a patient to take up a life-saving medical treatment as suicide. But Windt (1980) argues that suicide is a reflexive death which means that the person must either kill himself deliberately or get himself killed by someonethe death must occur as a result of the actions or behaviors of the deceased with the knowledge that the end result of such actions or behaviors is death (Shneidman, 1977:15-16); because in Greek and Latin conception of suicide, for instance, suicide is a death that a person brought upon himself or herself through his or her own actions and not a self-sacrificial death knowingly made to occur through a known death-risk actions meant to pay a particular price in the attainment of a goal (Cooper, 1999). Therefore, actions or behaviors leading to self-death are important in understanding suicide. A person who mistakenly terminates his life without prior intention to do so could not be said to have committed suicide. So, in what instances should an individual take his or her life? Referring to the feeble and the ill-formed infants, Spartans argue that a person that suffers ill-health and not suitable to offer service to the state is better off as a dead person than being alive.
According to Choibi (2017), there is the need to draw a line between behavior and circumstances leading to self-death in defining suicide. He stressed the fact that a man that mistakenly swallow a poison believing that it is fruit wine or orange juice could not be said to have committed suicide, whereas, a vegetative patient who instructed someone to inject him with a life-terminating substance may be considered to have committed suicide. Furthermore, he considered the works of Plato and Thomas Aquinas in his historical and philosophical writing. According to Plato, suicide is disgraceful and those who engage in it should be buried in unmarked graves. However, Plato gave four exceptions to his position. Plato says that suicide may be permitted (i) when one’s mind is morally corrupted and one’s character can be salvaged; ii) when self-killing is done by judicial order; iii) or when self-death occur as a result of extreme and unavoidable personal misfortune; and iv) when suicide occur due to shame arising from participation in grossly unjust actions (Laws IX 853a 3-5; Laws IX 873c-d). However, in Aquinas 1271, part II Q64, A5, Thomas Aquinas offered a strong defense for the prohibition of suicide on the grounds that (i) suicide is contrary to the natural self-love that exists in order to preserve humankind; (ii) suicide inflicts agony on the community to which an individual who committed a suicide belongs; and (iii) Suicide violate our duty to God by taken the gift of life for granted and by violating God’s right to determine the duration of earthly existence of any human being. Therefore, concerning death, the duration of existence must be determined by a higher power and death can only be accepted as and when it comes; and humans also have the autonomy over their lives and they may as well choose when and how to die (Flegel & Hebert, 2010).
Euthanasia and the Arguments
While suicide involves direct actions and behaviors by an individual committing suicide to end his life, Euthanasia involves actions taken by another individual in response to a decision or request by the owner of life to end his life or a decision taken on the life of an individual on his behalf. In assisted suicide, for example, the owner of life may request suicide pills from someone with the aim of ending his life. However, whether it is self-suicide or assisted suicide; the actions to cause self-death are basically taken by the owner of the life himself. It is not clear whether a request made by one person to another to inject the former with lethal substance with the motive of ending his life could be called assisted suicide or euthanasia. In the medical profession, euthanasia raises new concerns as regards the issue of dying and the medical responsibility and ethics of a physician to prevent death. On this, Williams argues that pain and hopelessness should not be the basis of justification for the practice of euthanasia because pain alone, no matter how unbearable it may be, cannot justify shortening of life. And also, hopelessness should not justify the hastening of death (Lavi, 2009:42-43).
1 Joseph, J. (2005: 172-175). The 1942 ‘euthanasia’ debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry. History of Psychiatry, 16 (2), 171-179.