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Tomorrow, we head to the polls to exercise our democratic rights and freedoms. We will determine who our political leaders for the coming three years will be and have the opportunity to vote in two referendums — on cannabis legalisation and control, and the End of Life Choice Act.
Four words here are significant and worth reflecting upon in more depth: rights, freedom, control and choice.
The most evident expression of the contemporary concept of rights and freedom is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948.
World War 2 involved the death of millions of soldiers and civilians and the appalling genocide of the Holocaust. In its aftermath, the international community had to confront the ideologies of dehumanisation that had given rise to this systematic oppression, brutal violence and murder.
The 30 articles of the UDHR build upon the long history of Judeo-Christian philosophical and theological thought about the status of humanity.
The articles declare an array of human rights and freedoms. To be human is to be free from slavery and torture, to have legal recognition, to be able to travel, have a home, have protection when forced to flee, to be free to marry, raise a family, own property, observe one’s religion, and express one’s views.
These personal, social, economic, and political rights and freedoms are all grounded in the fundamental significance of human life. The Nazi ideology-of-death, in which Jews, Romani, the disabled, and homosexuals were deemed subhuman, disposable commodities and utilised as slave labour before their murder, catalysed a global determination to uphold human dignity.
Article Three of the UDHR states emphatically: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person."
The naming of a reality to be privileged and protected requires the recognition of duties and obligations upon others. Accordingly, in the instance of Article 3, "the right to life, liberty and the security of person" places an obligation upon the broader community not to harm, detain or threaten the security of others. To fail to meet these obligations is to fail to recognise the human rights and thus humanity of this person.
We live in a society which elevates and celebrates these rights and freedoms. To be human, we suppose, is rooted in the freedom to exercise control over our individual lives — to have autonomy (auto-self; nomos-law).
Every day we exercise this control by making choices — what we will wear, what we will eat, how we spend our time. And now, in the End of Life Choice Act, the ultimate expression of this individual freedom will be the right to exercise control over how we end our lives.
But does it make sense to frame the time and nature of our death as a question of choice?
Personally, I have concerns at the extent to which much of the discussion around this profound moral issue has revolved around questions of individual freedom, choice and control, and the absence of concepts such as community, relationships, and duties.
I wonder whether our elevation of the individual and deification of choice and control is illustrative of the extent to which we are captive to a new dehumanising tyrannical ideology — that of free-market capitalism.
In the contemporary neoliberal paradigm, the technique of management is highly valued and human significance stems from our role as individual consumers making purchasing choices. But should the decision to control how we end our lives be reduced to another choice we make as individual consumers?
Does endorsing the freedom of an individual to choose death — perhaps unintentionally — belittle human life?
In seeking to manage and control the end of life, do we trivialise the inscrutable mystery of death?
In legalising and thus normalising the ending of life as an individual right, do we not risk reducing human life to another commodity — an experience to be discarded when it becomes worn and tired?
To what extent have the underlying principles of capitalism — utility, productivity, efficiency — colonised and distorted our understanding of the value of life?
My disquiet, that exercising individual freedom to choose death involves the commodifying and devaluing of human life, is eclipsed by a deeper concern.
Does viewing the choice to control our own deaths as a human right annul the very basis of human rights?
That is, in declaring the right to die, do we not undercut the very foundation of all human rights?
To declare the right of an individual to choose death runs counter to the very logic of human rights. These rights are grounded upon the significance and sanctity of human life. They recognise the richness and depth of the whole human experience. They summons everyone to uphold and protect life.
- Dr Andrew Shepherd is a lecturer in theology and public issues at the University of Otago.