Right to Life

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What was once considered fate or a gift, that is, human life, is increasingly thought of as subject to manipulation or control by means of scientific research and biomedical technology. The ability to regulate fertility and pregnancy on the basis of knowledge and desire, along with psychological studies of child development and the potentials of genetic engineering—not to mention the potential of nuclear weapons and other runaway technologies to destroy all life on the Earth—have conspired to promote consideration of possible rights to existence of those forms of life that have become increasingly subject to the unintended impacts or conscious manipulation of others.

The Right to Life: The Narrow Sense

When the right to life is spoken of, it is normally human life that is meant, although there are arguments for extending the scope of the right to other life forms. To restrict the right to the human species may attract the charge of speciesism. For present purposes, however, the discussion will be confined to humans.

The force of the right to life, insofar as it imposes obligations on others, is normally to stress the wrongness of killing, rather than a positive right to be brought into existence. This is because it is difficult if not impossible to identify someone who would be wronged by not being brought into existence. There is also controversy over whether someone can be wronged through being brought into existence, as in the debate about "wrongful life." It does not follow, however, that the right to life has no implications for positive aid. There are differences of opinion about the extent to which a right to life could impose obligations to save another's life.

One of the most difficult problems facing a right to life, however, concerns the definition of human life—especially with regard to its beginning and ending. There is disagreement both about when life begins and about when it ends. Some would say that the question of when life begins is not the right question, because life is ongoing. The germ cells are alive and life continues from generation to generation. What is normally meant, however, is the life of an identifiable individual—but even this is not clear-cut, with some putting more emphasis on the concept of the person than on that of human being. There is a similar issue at the end of life—whether what is important is the death of the organism or the end of everything one recognizes as personhood.

Arguments for a Right to Life

Not all arguments for the view that killing a human being is wrong use the terminology of rights. It might depend upon a view about the sanctity of human life. The doctrine of the sanctity of human life might be religiously informed: Life is a gift from God and therefore sacred. It is a way of expressing the view that life has intrinsic value—it is valuable in itself, from beginning to end, and it is wrong to destroy it.

Those who support the sanctity of life doctrine typically also take a conservative view about the beginning and ending of life, the presumption being that there is something of intrinsic value from the moment of conception, and that while there is life there is a being worthy of respect at the end of life. On the sanctity of human life view there can be no trade-offs. In other words, it would not be permissible to kill one innocent person in order to raise the quality of life of others, or even because of the opinion that a person's quality of life is no longer worth living. Critics point out that this has implications for social policy. How can there be justification for taking money away from life-saving enterprises and giving it to those that can at best only improve quality of life for some people? Upholders of the sanctity of life doctrine here fall back on a distinction between negative and positive, holding that the doctrine imposes the obligation not to kill, but not necessarily to save at all costs.

Ronald Dworkin has stressed the importance of distinguishing the sanctity of life view from the view that the individual is a person with rights and interests. According to the doctrine of the sanctity of life, life has intrinsic value even if it is not in a person's own interests to continue living, and even if the focus of discussion is not a person with interests of its own. Thus the sanctity of life doctrine provides an objection to abortion even if is not presumed that the fetus is a person.

Arguments that do depend on rights, however, have to face the problem that different rights of different individuals may conflict, and it is not always clear how they are to be balanced against each other. Utilitarianism offers a way in which to balance the interests of different persons. It is sometimes criticized for being willing to sacrifice one life to save more, because the individual life is not regarded as sacred. Although killing is directly wrong, it is not absolutely wrong on this view. For a utilitarian, killing is wrong because of its consequences, both for the person concerned and for third parties. It is wrong to the extent that it prevents happiness, destroys a "worthwhile life," or creates misery. The person killed loses the chance of any future happiness. Third parties may suffer side effects such as distress at the loss of the person and fear for their own fate if the protection against killing is weakened.

A potential killer may nevertheless judge that the person in question does not have a life worth living. While side effects provide some protection against someone carrying out this sort of calculation, there is still a problem in hypothetical situations where adverse side effects can be ruled out. A further argument is that if someone wants to go on living, that is evidence that they have a life that is worthwhile.

If what is valued is the amount of happiness or worthwhile life, rather than the intrinsic value of the individual life, then in some circumstances this can be maximized by killing one person to save five. In many cases, again, this objection can be met by pointing to the undesirable side effects of a policy that is willing to sacrifice individuals. At the same time, because utilitarians see consequences as more important than the means of arriving at those consequences, they are less impressed by the distinction between killing and failing to save. Failing to help a person when help is available can be just as bad.

Hard Cases

For some, the right to life is inalienable—it cannot be given up. Others take the view that it can be forfeited; for example, by murderers, so that capital punishment becomes a justifiable form of killing. The greatest controversy, however, occurs over the issues of euthanasia, embryo experimentation, and abortion. In the latter two cases the disagreement is not so much over the right to life per se as over the status of the embryo and fetus. What some regard as the possessor of rights, others regard as a collection of cells and the issue has to be resolved by social decision-making, such as laws permitting embryo experimentation for a certain limited time.

Broader Views

A wider interpretation of the right to life could embrace notions of the right to survival of the human species overall. Concerns about environmental degradation and human conflict have led to calls for a balance between the quality of the environment and the sanctity of the dollar, rather than a focus on quality of life and sanctity of life in medical interventions. Such a global bioethics stresses the importance of acceptable survival for the human species. Others go beyond the survival of the human species, expanding the circle of morality to include other species, and respect for all life.


SEE ALSO Abortion.


Dworkin, Ronald. (1993). Life's Dominion: An Argument about Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom. New York: Knopf. Argues that liberals and conservatives have misunderstood each other's positions. Attempts to clarify what it means to say that life is intrinsically valuable.

Glover, Jonathan. (1977). Causing Death and Saving Lives. Harmondsworth: Penguin. A classic study of the arguments relating to killing and letting die, including the sanctity of life, autonomy and rights.

Harris, John. (1985). The Value of Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Presents an argument about what it means to value life, with reference to a number of specific areas.

Potter, Van Rensselaer (1988). Global Bioethics. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press. Offers an account of bioethics that includes biology and humanistic knowledge to promote acceptable survival.

Singer, Peter (1981). The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology. Oxford: Clarendon Press. A discussion of expansion of ethical concern.