Moral Incoherence and Human Rights

When we speak of human rights, we must first identify what rights belong intrinsically to all human beings, and how human beings (persons) are defined. Among those rights, obviously, is the right to life, since without the right to live, one cannot possibly exercise any other rights. And attached to this right is the accepted responsibility that no human being has the right to murder any other innocent human being. Even in the case where the death of one person would serve to benefit another person (or persons), that person cannot be murdered to advance such a benefit. Consider the following examples:
  1. It is clear that the organs of newborn infants, as well as of the (even terminally) ill, the elderly, or of convicts condemned to death, could be successfully transplanted into needy adults or children, thus making it possible that the recipient of the transplant would become healthier. In each of these cases the person who “owns” these organs has the right to determine if they are to be taken from them, and no one argues that they should be forcibly removed, even after death, and transported into another without such consent, either by the individual herself, or from a legally appointed guardian. Likewise, no one would ever argue that the owner of the organs could be killed in order simply to obtain their organs. Even if the legally appointed guardian (such as a parent, for example) agreed to sacrifice the person under their guardianship to produce such transplantable organs, the practice would rightly be condemned and forbidden by the state, serving the protect the rights of the defenceless against those that would exploit them for the benefit of others. As stated in my opening paragraph, the life of one person cannot be terminated simply to benefit another. This is not just a religious position, but it is also a moral one, and it is one that is universally accepted in modern civilizations such as Canada and the United States.
  2. A new mother decides, immediately after giving birth, that she does not want the child, and elects to kill it. This is illegal, of course, and even if there are mitigating circumstances (such as the mental state of the mother), the act of killing the child is accepted as a moral and legal wrong that is to be avoided. Society rightly condemns and forbids infanticide.
  3. Excepting Oregon, every province and state in Canada and the United States accepts that the terminally ill, and others deemed to be a “burden” to their families remain legal persons, and cannot be killed, even with the expressed permission of their families. The formers’ right to life trumps the latter’s right to be free of whatever burden their continued living imposes upon them.
All three of these examples involve fundamental human rights that transcend any sectarian religious beliefs. One is not imposing one’s religious beliefs in order to protect the rights of individuals over their own bodies, organs, and lives, even when it can be demonstrated that the sacrifice of those lives would benefit others, even to the point of actually saving the lives of those others. It is not morally acceptable to do this.

This, then, brings us to the question of when, exactly, human life begins, and when does it end. In other words, when does a fetus become a “person”, and when, if ever, does a person cease to be a human being intrinsically worthy of protection. If one accepts that human life begins at birth, or at some point during pregnancy, then under that definition what is done to the fetus prior to that specifically defined moment in time is not a violation of anyone’s human rights. The pre-human fetus is, by definition, not a human being (person), and therefore is not entitled to any protection of its rights as it has no rights to protect, any more than do other non-human life forms. This was the reasoning of Roe v. Wade, which ruled that the foetus is not a person, and therefore has no intrinsic human rights. If one accepts the reasoning of Roe V. Wade, one must also accept its definition of who is a person, entitled to legal protection.

If, on the other hand, one accepts that the foetus is a human being from the moment of conception, then one must (in order to remain morally coherent) also accept that all human rights must be extended to that person from the moment of their conception. Further, one has a moral obligation to defend the rights of all of those whom one considers to be a person, including, if necessary, the imposition of one’s beliefs on others who do not share those same beliefs in order to protect those rights. As rational moral beings, we are obligated to remain morally coherent, and to the best of our abilities always defend that which is good and true. The right to life, to freedom, and to protection of the innocent from deliberate harm is central to our social and moral order. We are not allowed to advance the rights of one group at the expense of other groups. In the first example I cited above, we cannot kill one person in order prolong the life, or improve the health, of another person. And in the second, we do not accept that a parent (or even the parents acting together), have the right to kill their newly born child. Finally, in the third example, a family cannot agree to deliberately kill an elderly, terminally ill, or otherwise burdensome relative. As persons, the terminally ill, and those who have become a “burden” to their families, possess an intrinsic right to live that cannot be overridden even by their own families or guardians. One can argue otherwise only if one accepts that an individual possesses the right to suicide, or by arguing that the terminally ill cease to be persons.

So, can one remain morally coherent by accepting a wider definition of who is a person, and therefore entitled to legal protection of their rights, while at the same time refusing to defend those persons’ rights? The answer, very simply, is no.

I would like to use one additional analogy taken from American history to illustrate this point. Up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, African-Americans were denied the right to vote in many states. The debate that preceded the passage of this law involved two opposing camps. On one side stood those that argued that African-Americans were human beings (persons), just as were whites, Orientals, and all other races, and as such they were entitled to the right to vote. Opposing this position were those that argued that whether or not one personally believed African-Americans were persons did not matter. They argued that the Constitution of the United States granted to the individual states the right to determine who could, and who could not, vote. This right could not be restricted by the Federal government. For many years the courts, including the Supreme Court supported this position. But the argument that States rights trumped human rights was morally defensible only if one could argue successfully that African-Americans were, in some way, less human (in other words, not persons) than were people of other races. The argument that one personally believed African-Americans to be equal to all other Americans, but one could not impose this belief on those who rejected this view was morally incoherent. All human beings are essentially equal in their rights. If the law permitted a white person to vote at the age of 21, then a black person must also be given that same right.

Very simply, if one accepts that an unborn child is as much a person as is a child that has been born, then one must grant that both are entitled to the same rights. Likewise, if one accepts that terminal illness does not strip one of one’s personhood, it is not morally defensible to argue in favour or allowing them to be killed, even at the request of their family/guardian. If one opposes the killing of one, then one must oppose the killing of the other.



Layman said…

Great post.

A few observations and a question.

First, Roe v. Wade -- as I remember it -- did not really make any grand pronouncement about when human life begins. I know that seems crazy, but it is the truth. It still amazes me that to this day that the abortion issue in the Courts has gone back and forth about just what kind of restrictions are legal and when some restrictions can occur. The closest the courts have come is to concede that the state does have a significant interest in protecting the life of the fetus. But that right does not outweigh the mother's "right to privacy" until a certain point of development. When Roe was issued that was probably viability or the third-trimester. In the Casey case, however, the Supreme Court threw out such a standard because it varied as medical science progressed (kinda messy philosophically to make such distinctions on the basis of what medical science was available) to. . . . well, it's not clear just what or if there is any point now.

Which brings me to my question. If the fetus is not a human being, does it still have sufficient value to create at least a MORAL issue? That is, even if we agree (I do not) that the state cannot intercede, can we still judge the destruction of the fetus to be immoral? And on what basis?
Nomad said…
First, Roe v. Wade -- as I remember it -- did not really make any grand pronouncement about when human life begins.[/quote]

My response:
This is interesting, and my apologies for my error. Here in Canada this is the reasoning that the Canadian courts (including our Supreme Court) have used in rejecting laws that restricted abortions, and it is the reasoning that they continue to use (see the link found at for a list of cases in which the fetus was declared to have no rights, since it is not a person). I had assumed that the US Supreme Court had done the same thing, as it is incomprehensible (at least to me) that the Court could accept that the fetus is a "person", but not entitled to any human rights.

Which brings me to my question. If the fetus is not a human being, does it still have sufficient value to create at least a MORAL issue? That is, even if we agree (I do not) that the state cannot intercede, can we still judge the destruction of the fetus to be immoral? And on what basis?[/quote]

My response:
I am not a lawyer, so I will have to defer as to what legal obligations would exist if the fetus is not considered to be a person. But speaking from a strictly moral point of view, if the fetus is found to not be a human being, then, in my opinion, the question becomes one of property. Is the fetus the property of the expectant mother? If it is, then the mother is free to dispose of it as she sees fit, though perhaps arguments could be put forward for some restrictions on how it could be destroyed. The example I would offer would be on how animals are treated. We are not permitted to torture animals unnecessarily, nor can we kill them in an inhuman fashion. Any regulation of abortion on these grounds would probably focus on ensuring that the termination took place in a "humane" fashion.

As for how this would apply to the terminally ill, and otherwise burdonsome individuals, I do not see how their personhood could be revoked without creating a fundamental new definition of legal personhood.

I apologize for sounding so dispassionate on this topic (especially as I am most certainly anything but), but I am attempting to treat the argument on its terms. If society makes a legal ruling that a fetus is not a person, then it must still be defined as something, and the only approximation I can come up with is that of animal property, similar to how pets, livestock, and research animals are treated.

Bede said…
Nomad, great to see you posting here.

Your logic leaves us with a rather scary hole, as I'm sure you realise. There are certainly those who would eliminate people whose quality of life no longer reaches a certain threshold. In Europe the question is getting increasingly urgent as the euthanasia debate hots up. Those who support the killing of the terminally ill with their consent are soon going to start making the decisions for those unable to have a say. I cannot over emphasise how close we are to this in Europe.

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