Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

If the right to life is unalienable, assisted suicide is unconstitutional

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 04, 2016

When we think of “unalienable rights”—as we often do, on the 4th of July—we usually think of rights that cannot ever be taken away from us without injustice. But an “unalienable” right is something more: it is a right that we cannot give away freely without injustice.

In the language of real-estate law, you “alienate” a piece of property when you sell off your rights to it. The property is yours; you have the right to do with it as you please. Then you sell it, and it becomes alien to you; you no longer have any right to it.

There are some circumstances (more common in Jane Austen novels than in American life today), when the owner of property does not have the right to sell it. It is his property for as long as he lives, but he enjoys the rights to it under a legal arrangement that looks beyond his lifetime to preserve the property for future generations. The property is unalienable—or as we would say it now, inalienable.

An inalienable property can be used by the owner for his own benefit. But the law provides that it is not only for his benefit. Along with the right to the property, he has an obligation to preserve it.

Do you see how this logic applies to the “unalienable” right to life? Every human being has the right to life: a right that any just government must protect. But that right cannot be given away. Your life is your own, but not only your own.

Remember how the Declaration of Independence sets forth this concept:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Our rights come from God—not from the state. And they come as an endowment-- not unlike the entailed estates of Austen’s characters-- to be used wisely, for our own benefit and for the good of others. God grants us these rights, the Founding Fathers tell us, with a condition attached: they cannot be alienated.

If the right to life is unalienable, then one can never sell or cede his own right to live. And a law that allows someone to do so—a law that allows for assisted suicide, for example—is unjust.

Our nation is founded on that proposition, set forth in the Declaration of Independence, that we have unalienable rights. If the Supreme Court justices read the Constitution in the light of that founding principle, rather through the mists of their own personal preferences, any law allowing for assisted suicide should be declared unconstitutional.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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