In Honor of Jack Kevorkian
Tibor R. Machan
Jack Kevorkian died. He was unjustly demonized for standing up for the right to assisted suicide, often referred to as Dr. Death. But he also had a movie made about him recently, starring Al Pacino, titled “I knew Jack.”
Dr. Kevorkian’s case epitomizes the radical difference between American conservatives and American classical liberals. American conservatism, by all rights, ought always to include a radical dimension, one that guided the pen of Thomas Jefferson as he composed the Declaration of Independence, but too many conservatives fail to see this. One of the central, if not the central, principles of this document is that everyone has the right to life, simply be virtue of being human. Among the rights that the founders held to be self-evident–for purposes of the Declaration, to be precise–is the right to one’s life. As the Declaration put it, “all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
No sophistry can obscure the fact that by the lights of the American founders everyone has a natural right to his or her life. This means that what one does about one’s life–cultivate it, wastes it, sacrifices it for a cause, develops it, etc.–must be one’s own choice. (It is not whether it is right to do something that is up to one but whether to do it!) Having a right means just that: he or she who has it has a sphere of personal authority or jurisdiction wherein what one does, provided it doesn’t violate another’s rights, is one’s own decision, be this a sound or unsound, a good or bad decision.
So American conservatives, who supposedly are committed to conserve the principles on which the country was founded, ought all to acknowledge and defend the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. That is what should be their orthodoxy, just as Europeans conservatives have their set of ideas they want to preserve or conserve. But often they don’t and compromise these principles so as to favor their own religious or moral convictions.
It may be a difficult matter for one to both hold that life is precious or sacred and ought never to be given up, for example, by committing suicide, as well as that one has the right to end one’s life. But rights are like that: when one has a right one must be free to exercise it whether properly or not. Even someone who considers suicide morally wrong, or who considers aiding suicide morally wrong, must grant that it is up to the individual human being who has the right to life to exercise it either by promoting or by destroying it. This is no different from the right to free speech–whether one says good or bad things, one must be respected in one’s liberty to do either. One may attempt to dissuade someone who is bent on committing suicide but one may not prevent such an individual from exercising his or her right to life.
Of course the law doesn’t everywhere acknowledge this, just as the law fails to acknowledge the right one has to trade freely, to worship as one chooses, to write what one decides to write and so forth. Throughout the ages human beings have had to fight, not always successfully, to protect their rights and that is as true with one’s right to life as with other rights. And in most instances when rights are violated, abrogated, denied, etc., there is usually some fancy excuse that people who perpetrate this invoke.
But it is a ruse. One’s life is supposed to be under one’s own jurisdiction, as a matter of justice, because one has the right to it. One’s sovereignty rests on this right, the fact that others must abstain from imposing their will on the rights holders.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian bravely, in the fact of much demagoguery and ill will, tried to assert and uphold everyone’s right to life and the corresponding right to exercise it by ending one’s right or securing the assistance of someone so as to end it. That is what aiding and assisting those who want to commit suicide amounts to. They may not be prevented from exercising their rights however intensely one wishes they didn’t do so, even in the case of ending their lives.
There are some complications about this, as there is about nearly anything that involves the outer limits of a principle of social or personal life. If someone is demonstrably incapacitated and thus incapable of making a choice about whether to end his or her life, arguably that would justify not protecting the right to commit and seek assistance with suicide. But that’s all. The mere fact that someone makes such a choice doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination show that the person lacks the capacity to make a rational choice. (In some cases committing suicide can be eminently rational! But even if it may not be, it is up to the person with that life, not others, to make the decision.)
Anyway, it is proper to make sure that Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle doesn’t become obscured by all the sensationalism associated with his own career. Like so many others who fight to gain our rights firm protection, he has met with much abuse that he didn’t deserve.
For more, see Tibor R. Machan, “Aiding A Suicide Attempt,” Criminal Justice Ethics, Vol. 4 (Winter 1986), 73-74.