Issues of individual rights tend to stand at the very center of legal disputes and moral debates in the United States. This is no accident, for "rights talk" is as American as apple pie. The moral bedrock of our republic is, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, the self-evident truth that all men are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights, and, further, that securing these rights -- to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- for all human beings is the primary purpose of government. It is impossible to exaggerate the blessings that have come, both to us and to the world, from this liberal philosophical vision and its embodiment in our democratic political institutions.
Yet the dominance of rights talk in American moral discourse also leaves us impoverished in our efforts to understand and to protect what is humanly at stake in the dawning age of biotechnology. More than ever, armed with newfangled powers to alter body and mind, we can freely enjoy our rights and cheerfully use our freedoms in ways that degrade and dehumanize us. For example, by exercising our "right to reproduce," or our "right to do scientific research," free of any legal interference or moral objection, we have embraced surrogate motherhood, cloning, the buying and selling of egg and sperm, embryo farming, the creation of man-animal chimeras, and even extra-corporeal gestation. Pursuing the right to a longer life and an ageless body turns out to be perfectly compatible with creating human life solely for experimentation, establishing organ markets for transplantation, and freezing corpses for possible later reanimation. And the right to practice happiness as each sees fit turns out to be perfectly compatible with enhancing our performances with steroids and stimulants or gaining our pleasures and self-esteem from the pharmacist, completely severed from the human activities and attachments that are their proper ground. We Americans lack the language for expressing our concerns and disquiets over these and other threats to our humanity, precisely because we are so attuned to thinking only about our rights and our freedoms, and so little accustomed to speaking about our duties or our human dignity. In contrast, continental European discussion of these matters considers not only human rights but also and especially human dignity, in clear recognition that our humanity is not exhausted by our autonomy or by our ability to make claims or to exercise rights free of governmental interference. Certain forms of assisted reproduction are banned, human life cannot be created as a natural resource, and human body parts and human gametes are explicitly excluded from the domain of property and patentability. In contrast to Anglo-American ethics and law, European codes of ethics and specific legislation speak readily of preserving and protecting human dignity.
There is, however, one area of American bioethical discourse in which the language of human dignity looms large, indeed, functions almost as a shibboleth: "death with dignity." Distressed that our efficient life-sustaining technologies can keep people alive, often for many years, in increasingly diminished and degraded conditions, many people have joined a campaign against what they regard as the undignified and dehumanizing consequences of a medicine that seems always to choose in favor of life -- longer life, more life, life regardless of its quality. To be sure, because of the American penchant for claiming goods in the name of rights, the "death with dignity" movement often makes its case in terms of a "right to die" -- at first (hesitantly and negatively) as "a right to refuse treatment," now (stridently and positively) as "a right to choose the time and manner of one's death" or "a right to assistance in suicide." But the language of rights and freedom are really but a cover for a deeper -- and seemingly non-liberal -- concern with dignity and its diminution.
Notwithstanding its apparent liberal dress, the claim of a "right to die" or a "right to death with dignity" takes aim, often explicitly, at the foundational liberal idea: the primacy of self-defense against all threats to life and the assertion of the first natural right, the right to life. And in seeking to change the law to permit assisted suicide and euthanasia, the death-with-dignity movement seeks to overturn the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of lethal force and to undermine the fundamental liberal idea that government's first duty is to secure and protect the right to life of everyone, regardless of his or her mental and physical capacities.
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