By Ronald A. Lindsay
Two major changes in the American legal landscape are in progress, although one change is further along than the other. I’m referring to the legalization of same-sex marriage and physician-assisted dying (PAD), a.k.a. physician-assisted suicide. Same-sex marriage is now legal in over thirty states and, depending on action by the Supreme Court, may soon be legal nationwide. PAD is currently legal in only four states, but initiatives to legalize the practice are underway in several other states. Just last Thursday, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would legalize PAD in that state.
That these changes in the law are taking place concurrently is more than just a coincidence. They represent a continuation of a process that began in the late eighteenth century. A significant, transformative series of changes has occurred in many societies in the last two centuries, and these changes can best be described as an enlargement of the scope of individual autonomy.
The first changes were in the areas of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Many in developed countries now take these freedoms for granted, but before the Enlightenment it was not unusual for governments to mandate adherence to certain religious beliefs and to prohibit free expression. Unfortunately, recognition of the rights of the individual at first left untouched the institution of slavery and the subordinate status of women. However, the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the elimination of slavery and the emancipation of women, witnessed the extension of liberty to those who had previously been denied even the most basic freedoms. The enlargement of personal autonomy then continued with a marked increase in social mobility (people were no longer expected to stay within their “class”), laws that facilitated both marriage and divorce, and the recognition of reproductive rights. By the late twentieth century, people in many countries could speak freely, follow their conscience in matters of religion, pursue whatever profession they desired, and decide whether or not to have children.
Legalization of same-sex marriage and PAD is properly regarded as a continuation of the process of granting greater scope to personal freedom. People should be free to marry whomever they love, whether of the opposite sex or the same sex, and they should be allowed a measure of control over the most intimate decision a person can make, namely whether to hasten their death.
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