Inalienability…a good thing?


Though I am not a regular follower of the news, I do have a tab on iGoogle that has supreme court updates, and I was motivated into thought by Montana’s decision to allow physician-assisted suicide.

I am a supporter of physician-assisted suicide, as I am a supporter of suicide as a whole, given an individual is legally competent to make that decision (though the merits of that distinction, I allow, are up for debate). Thus, I welcomed the court’s decision. My thoughts did not turn to the legal or constitutional particulars of the issue, however. Instead, I thought about what the inalienable right to life meant, because it’s not as clear-cut as one might think.

Merriam-Webster (and their lovely flash-ad-ridden website ) define “inalienable” as: “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred.” Now, at just a cursory glance, this looks exactly like what we come to associate with the word: the government cannot take them away. However, the definition cleverly is worded in passive voice, which leaves out the all-important question of by whom? The way that the dictionary phrases that definition, it seems that no one or nothing can take away your right to life. This includes you. With this understanding of inalienable, you cannot take away your own right to life.

This seems, to me, to be in almost direct contradiction with what my understanding of a right is. Granted, there are many different conceptions of a right, but the most basic seems to be simply that a right is something that you own and no one can take away from you without due process of the law. It is something that you’re born with, and something, like property, that you can do with what you wish. By this conception of a right, it is something that you own.

If your right to life is inalienable, you cannot own it. By definition you cannot forsake it, transfer it, or anything else. You cannot have an inalienable right to life and commit suicide, become a martyr, or a suicide bomber. If you do not own your life, then do you really have a right to it? If you do not have ultimate control over what happens to your life, then it seems that someone else other than you has the final say in your life. It’s an odd conception, especially for Americans who tend to equate rights with property. Perhaps that demands a revisitation of what a right is, but that is for another time.

I wonder, perhaps, if that is what Jefferson meant when he penned that immortal phrase. If so, perhaps inalienability has a softness to it. People can and do forsake their lives on a regular basis, not just with suicide, but with acts of heroism, and with some acts of terrorism. Inalienability with respect to life clearly seems to not exist at all, if the clear-cut definition applies fully. Thus, perhaps, inalienability’s meaning is restricted in some senses. Would anyone even want an actual inalienable right? Some people, myself included, would be largely uncomfortable with the idea that it would be impossible to give up, transfer, or forsake our own lives. It’s my life; I should be able to do with it what I wish.

Thankfully, the idea of inalienability is not something that is in our Constitution, but is instead expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That document, though historically important, has no legal bearing and is largely rhetoric. I wonder if the rhetorical grandeur of the declaration was purposefully omitted from the listing of our rights in the Constitution. We are granted the right to life, liberty, and property several times throughout the document. Though there is no clear definition of what a right is, inalienability, a concept from the Declaration which is still highly celebrated today, is conspicuously absent.

Those wily founding fathers…