Assisted suicide is a bona fide American right

By hannah shtein

Oh, the Ninth Amendment – the rights “retained by the people.” What does that mean, exactly? I ask this question in response to a recent mention of the Ninth Amendment by Dr. Jack Kevorkian as he outlined his goals were he to win the House seat he is currently vying for.

Sorry if this reminds you of your Poli Sci 104 exam, but I’ll make it quick. Essentially, the Ninth Amendment aims to protect the fundamental rights that are not mentioned in other parts of the Constitution. We have the explicitly stated rights, and then we have the “retained rights” that we are entitled to implicitly.

Not to state the excessively obvious, but this is where it gets a little difficult.

In light of Mr. Kevorkian’s declaration of his candidacy, this is a good time to reexamine what the issue of physician-assisted suicide – Kevorkian’s trademark – says about Americans’ views on what is or is not to be considered a fundamental “retained right.” In response to the assisted suicide controversy, the instinctive response of most left-leaners is to defend it using our favorite individualistic notion of personal freedom: assisted suicide is ethical because your life is your choice.

And, being the freedom-loving, American Dream-chasing citizens we are, it is difficult for many to not view the right to end one’s life as an intuitive extension of the freedoms already guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

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However, one argument against this assertion – as posed by religious consultant and self-proclaimed progressive Dr. Robert Jones – poses a trade-off between personal freedom and something else we innately expect as an implicit right: justice, or, more specifically, equality.

In an interview with the Pew Forum, Dr. Jones argues that because of the 47 million uninsured Americans in our current health care system, those who cannot afford health care will be more likely to look to paying “$50 and $150 for a lethal prescription of medication to end your life versus tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for long-term care.”

Rather than making the anti-abortion versus abortion-rights analogy usually paralleled with this issue, Dr. Jones compares his argument against assisted suicide to arguing against the death penalty. He holds that we cannot “justly implement” the death penalty even if there are cases in which it is justifiable “in the abstract” because of current problems with racism and discrimination in the court system.

While this argument is certainly compelling, we have to pause and look to the core of what Dr. Jones is saying. He is obviously correct in noting that the likelihood of looking to physician-assisted suicide is increased by lack of insurance or financial strife. Which is why this could be a convincing argument for changing our health care system, or for holding doctors responsible for communicating the alternatives to assisted suicide.

In this trade-off between equality and personal freedom, we have to pick freedom. In comparing this phenomenon with that of capital punishment, Jones misses the glaring distinction between not permitting one person to choose another’s death, and not permitting a person to make a decision regarding his own death.

One might argue that in granting this choice, the government is neglecting its duty to protect the welfare of its citizens.

This may make sense in theory – we want to maintain the strength of the community, so keeping the citizens alive is certainly in our best interest.

In practice, however, it is not only unreasonable but patronizing to assume that the state is better equipped than the subject in question to make a decision concerning that person’s life.

The implication of this view reaches further than removing freedom with regard to one’s own life. Its real danger is that it undermines the very foundation of American society.

The United States is undeniably individualist; freedoms and liberties are written into our Constitution and omnipresent in our culture.

But the ultimate goal of this individualism is to benefit the society as a whole through the satisfaction of individual needs and desires.

In robbing Americans of the directly personal choice of deciding one’s own life, we are contradicting the very foundation of Constitutional ideology.

If we hope to foster an attachment to the community in cooperation with individual goals, we must foster not only freedom, but responsibility.

It is absolutely essential to address the discrepancies in health care and financial opportunity.

The focus must lie on these economic factors; we must work to improve the circumstances in which the choice to end one’s life is made rather than removing the possibility for assisted suicide altogether.

Robbing a person of this option does not add value to her life or decrease her suffering. Rather, it reduces the sense of worth that is strengthened by the ability to assert one’s will to live – or not live.