Venezuelan protestors in 2014 with a sign that reads "Peace; Freedom; Justice; Right to life" in Spanish
Venezuelan protestors in 2014 with a sign that reads "Peace; Freedom; Justice; Right to life" in Spanish

The right to life is the belief that a being has the right to live and, in particular, should not be killed by another entity. The concept of a right to life arises in debates on issues including capital punishment, with some people seeing it as immoral; abortion, where some feel an unborn fetus is alive and should not be ended prematurely; euthanasia, where the decision to end one's life outside of natural means is seen as incorrect; and in killings by law enforcement, which is seen by some as an infringement of a person's right to live. Various individuals may disagree in which of these areas the principle of a right to life might apply.


See also: Abortion debate, Abortion-rights movements, and Anti-abortion movement

Diagram depicting a surgical abortion
Diagram depicting a surgical abortion

The term "right to life" is used in the abortion debate by those who wish to end the practice of abortion, or at least reduce the frequency of the practice,[1] and in the context of pregnancy, the term right to life was advanced by Pope Pius XII during a 1951 papal encyclical:

Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life directly from God and not from his parents, not from any society or human authority. Therefore, there is no man, no society, no human authority, no science, no “indication” at all whether it be medical, eugenic, social, economic, or moral that may offer or give a valid judicial title for a direct deliberate disposal of an innocent human life

— Pope Pius XII, Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession Papal Encyclical, October 29, 1951.[2]
President Ronald Reagan meets with representatives of the Right to Life movement, 1981
President Ronald Reagan meets with representatives of the Right to Life movement, 1981

In 1966 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) asked Fr. James T. McHugh to begin observing trends in abortion reform within the United States.[3] The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) was founded in 1967 as the Right to Life League to coordinate its state campaigns under the auspices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.[4][5] To appeal to a more broad-based, nonsectarian movement, key Minnesota leaders proposed an organizational model that would separate the NRLC from the direct oversight of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and by early 1973 NRLC Director Fr. James T. McHugh and his executive assistant, Michael Taylor, proposed a different plan, facilitating the NRLC move toward its independence from the Roman Catholic Church.

Ethics and right to life

Peter Singer at Crawford Forum 2017
Peter Singer at Crawford Forum 2017

See also: Abortion debate, Philosophical aspects of the abortion debate, and Infanticide

Some utilitarian ethicists argue that the "right to life", where it exists, depends on conditions other than membership of the human species. The philosopher Peter Singer is a notable proponent of this argument. For Singer, the right to life is grounded in the ability to plan and anticipate one's future. This extends the concept to non-human animals, such as other apes, but since the unborn, infants and severely disabled people lack this, he states that abortion, painless infanticide and euthanasia can be "justified" (but are not obligatory) in certain special circumstances, for instance in the case of a disabled infant whose life would be one of suffering.[6]

Bioethicists associated with disability rights and disability studies communities have argued that Singer's epistemology is based on ableist conceptions of disability.[7]

Capital punishment

Further information: Capital punishment § Roman Catholic Church

Paris Die-in on July 2, 2008
Paris Die-in on July 2, 2008

Opponents of capital punishment argue that it is a violation of the right to life, while its supporters argue that the death penalty is not a violation of the right to life because the right to life should apply with deference to a sense of justice. The opponents believe that capital punishment is the worst violation of human rights, because the right to life is the most important, and capital punishment violates it without necessity and inflicts to the condemned a psychological torture. Human rights activists oppose the death penalty, calling it "cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment", and Amnesty International considers it to be "the ultimate, irreversible denial of Human Rights".[8]

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted, in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016[9] non-binding resolutions calling for a global moratorium on executions, with a view to eventual abolition.[10]

Killings by law enforcement

See also: Lists of killings by law enforcement officers and Police brutality

The International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement[11] has created a system whereby it is recognised that international human rights law is binding upon all state actors, and that said state actors must know and be capable of applying international standards for human rights. The right to life is for the most part an inalienable right granted to every human upon the planet, however, there are certain situations in which state actors are required to take drastic action, which can result in civilians being killed by law enforcement agents.

Appropriate occasions for killings by law enforcement are strictly outlined by the International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement. Any lethal action taken by law enforcement agents must be taken following a certain set of rules that have been set out in the 'Use of Force' section of the Pocket Book on Human Rights for the Police.[11] The essential tenet of the Pocket Book[11] surrounding the use of lethal force is that all other means of a non-violent nature should be employed initially, followed by proportionately appropriate use of force. Proportionately appropriate use of force can, and will in some circumstances, refer to lethal force if a law enforcement agent genuinely believes that ending the life of one civilian would result in the preservation of his life, or the lives of his fellow civilians, as is outlined in the 'Permissible Circumstances for the Use of Firearms' section of the Pocket Book.[11] The Pocket Book[11] also outlines in the 'Accountability for the Use of Force and Firearms' section that there are stringent measures of accountability in place to maintain integrity within state law enforcement agencies as regards their right to the use of lethal force.

Protests at Ferguson on August 14, 2014
Protests at Ferguson on August 14, 2014

International institutions have outlined when and where law enforcement agents might have the availability of lethal force at their disposal. The International Association of Chiefs of Police have 'Model Policies' which incorporate various pieces of information from leading sources.[12] One of these model policies states that law enforcement agents will engage in reasonable necessary force to efficiently bring a scenario to a conclusion, giving specific thought to both the safety of themselves and other civilians. Law enforcement officers are given the prerogative to engage in department-approved methods to safely bring a conclusion to a scenario and are also given the ability to use issued equipment to resolve issues in scenarios where they are required to protect themselves or others from damage, to bring resistant individuals under control, or to safely conclude unlawful incidents. There is no mention as to what "reasonably necessary" should be interpreted as meaning, but there is reference made to the reasonable man method of determining how one should approach a scenario.[13] However, it has been highlighted through events such as the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri,[14] which resulted in public unrest, that there is confusion and debate surrounding the use of firearms and lethal force. The 'Procedure for the Use of Firearms' section provides the process through which law enforcement agents must progress when using firearms. It states that they must identify themselves as a law enforcement agent, issue a clear warning, and give an adequate amount of time for response (providing that time would not likely result in harm being done to the agent or other civilians) before deadly force can be used within the bounds of international law.

While the Pocket Book on Human Rights for the Police outlines the academic circumstances under which law enforcement agents may use lethal force, the literal scenarios in which police killings have occurred are also relevant. Rosenfeld[15] states that there is considerable literature that gives reason to believe that social conditions also have a part to play in how law enforcement killings can occur. Rosenfeld states that there are numerous studies that have been conducted which link law enforcement agents' use of lethal force to the area's rate of violent crime, the size of the non-indigenous population and the socioeconomic position of the community concerned.[16] Appropriating a blanket description of how police killings can occur across the board is difficult given the vast differences in social context from state to state.

George Floyd mural Mauerpark Berlin, May 2020
George Floyd mural Mauerpark Berlin, May 2020

Perry, Hall and Hall[17] discuss the phenomena across the United States of America which became highly charged and widely documented in late 2014, referring to the use of lethal force from white police officers on unarmed black male civilians.[18] There is no legal prerogative which gives law enforcement agents the ability to use lethal force based on the race of the person they are dealing with, there is only a legal prerogative to engage in lethal force if there is a reasonable fear for your life or the lives of others. However, the Propublica analysis of federal data on fatal police shootings between 2010 and 2012, showed that young black male civilians were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white male civilians.[19] The use of lethal force from law enforcement agents in the United States created widespread feeling amongst US citizens that they were not being protected by the police. The justice system mostly found that these agents acted within the boundaries of the law because the actions of the people who were shot were judged to be sufficiently questionable in character for the police officer to fear for their own life or the lives of others. Coppolo[20] investigated Connecticut law and reported that the use of lethal force must be followed by a report that determines whether the law enforcement agent's lethal force was proportionately necessary in the circumstances. Coppolo also stated that a reasonable lethal response must only be made when there is a reasonable belief that the facts you have been presented with could realistically result in a risk of death or grievous bodily harm.[21]


Main article: Legality of euthanasia

Euthanasia machine (Australia)
Euthanasia machine (Australia)

Those who believe a person should be able to make the decision to end their own life through euthanasia use the argument that persons have a right to choose ,[22] while those who oppose the legalization of euthanasia argue so on the grounds that all persons have a right to life. They are commonly referred to as right-to-lifers.[23]

Juridical statements

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

— Article 6.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

— Article 4.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

— Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

See also


  1. ^ Solomon, Martha. "The Rhetoric of Right to Life: Beyond the Court's Decision" Archived 2009-07-24 at the Wayback Machine Paper presented at the Southern Speech Communication Association (Atlanta, Georgia, April 4–7, 1978)
  2. ^ "Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession", 29 October 1951. Pope Pius XII.
  3. ^ "Gale - Product Login". Retrieved 2019-07-18.
  4. ^ K.M. Cassidy. "Right to Life." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, Coordinating Editor, Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1990. pp. 1017,1018.
  5. ^ "God's Own Party The Making of the Religious Right", pp. 113-116. ISBN 978-0-19-534084-6. Daniel K. Williams. Oxford University Press. 2010.
  6. ^ Singer, Peter. Practical ethics Cambridge University Press (1993), 2nd revised ed., ISBN 0-521-43971-X
  7. ^ Singer, Peter (2001). "An Interview". Writings on an Ethical Life. pp. 319–329. ISBN 978-1841155500.
  8. ^ "Abolish the death penalty". Amnesty International. Archived from the original on 30 August 2010. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
  9. ^ "117 countries vote for a global moratorium on executions". World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. 19 December 2014. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02.
  10. ^ "moratorium on the death penalty". United Nations. 15 November 2007. Archived from the original on 27 January 2011. Retrieved 23 August 2010.
  11. ^ a b c d e "International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-08-28.
  12. ^ "IACP Law Enforcement Policy Center". Archived from the original on 2017-09-11. Retrieved 2017-09-11.
  13. ^ Alpert & Smith. "How Reasonable Is the Reasonable Man: Police and Excessive Force". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 85 (2): 487.
  14. ^ "Michael Brown's Shooting and Its Immediate Aftermath in Ferguson". N.Y. TIMES. August 25, 2014.
  15. ^ Richard Rosenfeld, Founders Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
  16. ^ Rosenfeld, Richard. "Ferguson and Police Use of Deadly Force". Missouri Law Review: 1087.
  17. ^ Alison V. Hall, University of Texas-Arlington, Erika V. Hall, Emory University, Jamie L. Perry, Cornell University.
  18. ^ Hall, Hall & Perry (2016). "Black and Blue: Exploring Racial Bias and Law Enforcement Killings of Unarmed Black Male Civilians". American Psychologist. 71 (3, 2016): 175–186. doi:10.1037/a0040109. hdl:1813/71445. PMID 27042881.
  19. ^ Gabrielson, Sagara & Jones (October 10, 2014). "Deadly Force in Black and White: A ProPublica analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males". ProPublica.
  20. ^ Attorney George Coppolo, Chief Attorney for the Connecticut General Assembly's Office of Legislative Research.
  21. ^ Coppolo, George. "Use of Deadly Force by Law Enforcement Officers". OLR Research Report, Feb. 1, 2008.
  22. ^ 1999, Jennifer M. Scherer, Rita James Simon, Euthanasia and the Right to Die: A Comparative View, Page 27
  23. ^ 1998, Roswitha Fischer, Lexical Change in Present-day English, page 126
  24. ^ Marušić, Juraj (1992). Sumpetarski kartular i poljička seljačka republika (1st ed.). Split, Croatia: Književni Krug Split. p. 129. ISBN 978-86-7397-076-9.
  25. ^ Pontifical Council for the Family. The Family and Human Rights Archived 2008-03-19 at the Wayback Machine Vatican website. Retrieved 2011-07-09.
  26. ^ Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India AIR 1978 SC 597