Well, we appear to have made a bit of a splash last week. Last week, we ran three different articles fleshing out some pro-life perspectives on the abortion debate – the heartbeat theory, the natural law theory, and theconception theory.
As I was flicking through the comments on a variety of FB posts, I noticed a few themes. Some people lauded the heartbeat article, noting that they’ve had similar frustrations concerning the problem of personal identity, while others expressed concern that the heartbeat theory would remove an obligation to protect human life at the earliest stages. One commenter asked if the heartbeat theory gave a thumbs-up to the morning after pill.
In the midst of all the questions about start of life and personal identity, I think there’s another helpful way of looking at the abortion debate, and I think it has the potential to unite pro-life advocates on both sides of the question.
Rights and Duties
Sophocles, Abortion,and Human Dignity,” in response to my own growing concerns about the philosophical tenability of the personhood-at-conception argument. The article argued, essentially, that the question of personhood is unimportant when considering whether or not the embryo ought to be protected – it is still imago dei and therefore something we ought to protected.
Underlying the argument, however, is a more fundamental shift in our way of reasoning. Much of the current pro-life debate is based on the popular tendency of attempting to ground morality in a notion of human rights. Think of “National Right to Life” as an example. Such a way of thinking is undoubtedly useful, in some sense, but I think a shift in emphasis might be more fruitful – from the concept of human rights to human duties.
Rights-based thinking carries with it a couple of problematic tendencies. First, rights-based thinking implies an entitlement that rests within the person possessing the right. If I have a right to life, then life is something that I am entitled to – and if it’s a natural right, then it is something that I am entitled to by nature.
But Scripturally this doesn’t seem to be the case. When Job says “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, praise the name of the Lord,” is he praising God for a violation of his wife and children’s rights? Perhaps God’s just God, and can take away a person’s rights whenever he wants. But that doesn’t completely solve the problem. We don’t argue that a person’s right to life is violated when he is attacked by a wild animal and torn to pieces. We view it as regrettable, but not a violation of one’s rights.
One might object that by talking about natural rights, we mean those rights that cannot be violated by other persons. Okay, fine. But at that point, our concept of rights is not based on something that we’re entitled to by nature. It’s based on a concept of what another person ought to do. That is, before we understand what our rights are, we have to have some conception of what another person’s duty is.
Second, a focus on a person’s rights moves the locus of action from the person possessing the right to other people. For example, if I say that I have a right to life, I am articulating some entitlement that another person is supposed to guarantee. Namely, another person is supposed to do or not do something (refrain from killing me). But if I say that I have a duty to protect life, the locus of action is in myself. I can now say, based on my duty to protect life, that I must refrain from killing another. Duties imply actions that I must take, rights do not.
All right, so that was fairly pedantic. So let me see now if I can tie it in.
If we approach the abortion question by asking the question, “what is my duty?” instead of “what are the child’s rights?” then the question of personhood becomes easier to tackle. Traditionally, if we’re talking about “human rights,” then we’re talking about things that can only be possessed by a person, but duties can be rendered towards something that is not a person, such as imago dei. As a sidenote, this kind of thinking can also be applied elsewhere – instead of ‘animal rights,’ think of ‘duties towards animals,’ and it’s definitely more important to think of a duty to steward the earth than some concept of ‘environmental rights.’
The pro-life position right now can stand to move away from its rhetoric of rights, especially since the other side also has a handful of rights that they can throw down whenever they want. How are we to tell if an infant’s right to life outweighs the mother’s right to control her body (as Judith Jarvis Thompson has argued with her violinist analogy)? Typical pro-abortion arguments are actually based on contesting the pro-life shift from rights to duties – “okay, so suppose the infant has a right to life, why is the mother, who may not have consented or used protection required to guarantee that right?”
Asserting that the child has a right to life doesn’t work in this situation. The answer is that we as persons, possess an obligation, or duty, to value and protect the imago dei. This answer shifts the focus of debate from a narcissistic assertion of rights to actual questions of philosophy – who are we and how ought we interact with this thing we call reality?
Of course, asking the right question is just step one. Now we need to go about answering it. For a start there, I recommend you back to Matthew Maule’s argument on natural law. I think it’s quite compelling.
By Nick Barden
Image: The Vigil by John Pettie (1884).
Image: The Vigil by John Pettie (1884).