Two recent contributions to this newspaper offered arguments defending “choices of death”. The phrase is not my own, nor is it being foisted upon such liberal theorists of law and politics as I have in mind to address.
That phrase was chosen by pro-choice philosopher Ronald Dworkin in his book Life’s Dominion, which keenly defended abortion (and euthanasia). In that book the veteran philosopher defended the immunisation from legal prohibition of such practices.
In the opening lines he stated that: “Abortion, which means killing a human embryo, and euthanasia, which means killing a person out of kindness, are both choices for death.”
The two recently featured articles in question have a few aspects in common. Firstly, they both place the accent entirely on the “republic of choice” as the core of a primarily conventional understanding of civil rights. In this they both earnestly insist on the conviction that women are entitled to the civil right to abortion in virtue of their alleged right to choose what to do with a pregnancy and how to dispose of the unwelcome child they carry.
The second common feature is that they both systematically ignore the biological, moral and social status of the human embryo. It is noteworthy that at no point does the question of the foundations of human personhood or dignity, or the value of the human life of the embryo arise.
One of the articles typically goes on to suggest that Catholics are dogmatically constrained by their conservative defence of human life as if these were blindly (and unreasonably) led by their reverence towards religious belief rather than by their accountability to the inevitable facts established by the most recent scientific wisdom available.
There is in the articles an undeniable ideological spin that avoids Dworkin’s candid acknowledgment of the death-dealing nature of the choices they propose to defend. Instead, we are told that the enlightened step towards embracing abortion would work in tandem with an internationally adopted policy and would reinforce the progressive development toward greater respect for women’s civil rights.
My modest remarks here are aimed at two principal targets. I would primarily like to shed light on the ‘conventionalist’ philosophy that lies at the roots of their understanding of civil rights and which is the paradigmatic inspiration at the basis of the liberal understanding of human rights in general.
Any serious reader – indeed every citizen – should recognise that the main issue dividing the opposing sides on this particular debate is whether legal rights can embody and express objective and unchanging moral standards. Do civil rights come into being merely at a specific time and place, and then possibly devolve and become extinct as history or experience unfolds later on?
The fact that laws come into force by authoritative enactment in the same way that they can be repealed suggests that such laws might also be subject to criticism and rational assessment. For instance, the law might unjustly fail to protect citizens from the right not to be enslaved or arbitrarily killed. In doing so it would also confer upon a select group of citizens a right to enslave other members of the same human species.
When we measure the justice or injustice of such failures or successes in such instances of positive law, we tend to do so by appealing to some higher standard of justice and truth.
To ground the evolution of civil rights exclusively in conventional considerations as liberal theorists habitually do is thus wrong and dangerous since the sceptical character of such moral positions fails to appeal to stronger and more objective standards that would and indeed should be universally recognised.
To ground the evolution of civil rights exclusively in conventional considerations as liberal theorists habitually do is wrong
The alleged civil right to abortion lacks any such universal or objective grounding in its favour. Here the standard response of the conventionalist is to say that civil rights are based on the morally and culturally diverse plethora of value-commitments to be found in the world.
Different people hold and have held different beliefs about issues such as slavery, racial considerations and feticide. Their conclusion is, therefore, that there is no moral truth and that objective standards of legal justice are impossible to even dream about. Nor would they be desirable.
On the other hand, the belief that some choices or ways of life are indeed morally unacceptable does not entail the proposition that there is always one single objectively morally correct choice at hand. The spectrum of human goods needs to be reflected in a wider variety of legitimate moral choices and ways of life.
Now, the liberal view of civil rights unconditionally affirms that people are free to pursue their desires and interests at all costs. If man is radically free as they believe, then, as Nietszche put it, “all things are permitted”.
From this line of reasoning how could a liberal defender of civil rights prevent persons from legally exploiting or enslaving others? The instability that results from such a wilfully pragmatic defence of civil rights shows us that here the real choice lies primarily between objective standards and nihilism, the latter view claiming that nothing has any genuinely permanent value or meaning at all.
In other words, I wish to submit that civil rights need to be warranted on the basis of other criteria rather than the instinctive self-referential and question-begging way promoted by ideological activists.
Why is abortion wrong? It is wrong because it abusively encroaches on a right that is even more fundamental than any other purported entitlement, namely the right to life. Why is this pertinent here? It is especially pertinent to the abortion debate, for every human being – especially the innocent and most vulnerable of our species, specifically embryos and foetuses – deserve to be respected and promoted rather than suppressed.
However, do such early instances of human life truly deserve to be the subjects of the fundamental human right to life? There is no doubt that the reader of this article was at one point in time a zygote (as opposed to a gamete or any other somatic cell) and that the seamless progression from that ‘I’ that started off with the zygotic stage to the ‘I’ of adult life today could only materialise because of the uninterrupted continuity of one consistently and dynamically developing member of the species Homo sapiens.
Again, why is abortion wrong? It is wrong because it is the deliberate murder of innocent human life. What is killed in abortion is a human being, the same kind of entity as the person writing this article and that other person who is reading it.
Judges and legislators, being human, might naturally be tempted to engage in usurpative acts for the sake of the causes they favour, whether liberal or conservative, whether they have to do with party financing, the environment or the rights of the human embryo.
One ought to be thankful that no principle contained in the Constitution of our nation is incompatible with the protection of human life in utero. Liberal thinkers like Judith Thomson would protest saying that “the many women who reject the claim that the foetus has a right to life from the moment of conception are not unreasonable in doing so”. She too, like the two recent articles on this topic, avoids the question of the moral status of the embryo and goes straight on to merely assert the alleged ‘reasonableness’ of abortion.
Would the pro-life position then be unreasonable? It would not, for, the defence of the moral dignity of human embryos is based on the scientific fact that the unity and identity of the human life which belongs to the unborn child even at its early stages of development is not contingent upon its developmental progress as a newborn infant, an adolescent and an adult.
Inferior levels of sophistication do not, thereby, disqualify even unwanted embryonic and foetal life from such a right. The liberal civil rights activist must do more to even get close to establishing that human embryos do not have a legitimate right to life than by merely asserting that they do not. For this reason the position of pro-choice activists will always remain unsatisfactory because it will always fail to demonstrate that unborn and defenceless humans do not possess such a right.
The author is a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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