Having previously examined equality, the pursuit of happiness and liberty, we now examine the right to life in completion of our series on the quote from the Declaration of Independence, “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.”
Scientists and philosophers alike have found it difficult to define life in terms that defy debate. This is due in part to the fact that life is a process, not a substance. Generally speaking, life is defined as the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter. It includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. That condition would apply to plants, animals, fungi and bacteria among other organisms. These life forms have a complex organization, but are generally carbon and water based and hold genetic information that can be inherited.
Growth requires the ability to take in nutrition. Plants take in nutrition from the sun, soil and water. Most of the nutrients taken in by animals comes from what they consume. The common use of the word reproduction might raise some questions about the definition of life. What of the elderly or of small children whose reproductive organs are not yet developed or those who are naturally or surgically sterile? Are they any less alive? No! They may not be producing babies, but cell reproduction continues. Functional activity requires the ability to move. The movement might be difficult to imagine in many plants, but think of those that open and close such as Morning Glories or Venus Fly Traps and those that bend and move to face the sun. It might also be difficult to imagine movement in someone who is comatose or paralyzed, but the eyes or mouth may still move or the internal organs, such as the beating heart. So the basic powers of living things are nutritive, reproductive and locomotive.
Animals are most often differentiated from plants by having the additional power of sensation, the power of perception or the power of acting consciously in response to events in the external world. To the more complex animals forms we add some kind of intellectual power or intelligence, the power of problem solving. To humans alone do we attribute the power of reason, the ability to comprehend universal propositions, to interpret the past and extrapolate and predict the future.
Among all the life forms, the unalienable right to life claimed in the Declaration of Independence is applied only to humans. That final power of reason is what gives humans dominion over other life forms. While we widely respect all life forms, we can destroy other life forms to sustain or protect our own. Many of those other life forms are what provide the nutrients we need to sustain human life. They provide our food, clothing and shelter.
From a moral perspective, there are a variety of questions that arise surrounding the taking of a life. The higher the life form, the more questions that arise. The greatest debates are about the taking of human life: suicide, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and life support for vegetative patients. The fundamental question in each of these debates is not whether life exists. In each instance, the person or fetus is taking in nutrition, growing, reproducing cells, functionally active and continuing to change. So the basic definition for life is clearly met. The question then becomes what is the value of that individual life?
What criteria would a reasonable person set to determine the value of a life when life itself is an unalienable right? Does the richest person have more of a right to life than all the other people? Does the happiest person have more of a right to life? Would the most productive or the most loving have more of a right to life? Does the healthiest person have more right to life than the less healthy or even unhealthy? Does the care giver have more right to life than the cared for? Does the best behaved have more of a right to life than those less well behaved?
Our national forefathers believed the unalienable right to life was a self-evident truth for all humans? They did not qualify it.