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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 27, 2006

Today, we talk imprecisely about the "right" to many things -- the right to be happy, the right to be stress-free, the right to have our views respected. But this promiscuous use of the term degrades the concept of a "right."

Almost sounds like a natural law-based complaint about the corruption of rights-language penned by a social conservative, doesn't it? Read on:

For those of us who emerged from a progressive, humanist tradition, "rights" designates the requirements for participation in bourgeois, democratic society. Rights are what are required to make people equal. Thirty years ago, this specific concept of rights was shared by democrats and those concerned with social justice. The right to abortion and contraception was a basic tenet of the women's liberation movement in its early years, along with the right to equal pay and equal job opportunities, because activists understood that women needed control over their fertility to play an equal role in public life. When you deny me a means to end my unwanted pregnancy, you deny me the opportunity to participate in society in the way that my brother or husband can. Better nurseries and better financial support can mitigate some of the consequences of motherhood, but nothing can mitigate the impact of pregnancy itself, which is why women need the means to end it.

This is Ann Furedi, director of the UK's principal abortion provider BPAS, writing in the magazine of Catholics for a Free Choice. Her notion of a right as a requirement for participation is not only ironic but, in context, macabre. It requires treating unborn children as invisible, as not even candidates for participation-rights -- an extreme example of the willful injustice that Furedi herself claims to oppose as a feminist. Nor is this mere inadvertence, as the following passage makes clear:

This unfashionable privileging of rights is not divorced from the more acceptable stress on responsibility. Surely it is right, if not "a right," for women to be allowed to make their own moral choices concerning their pregnancies. The decision must be made by someone; why should it not be made by the person whose life is most connected to it?

The person whose life is most connected to the decision is the unborn child. As is the case with infants, the mentally defective, and the very sick, the unborn child is not in a position to "make a decision" regarding his proposed execution, nor even to make his opinion heard. Society acknowledges that the "default" interest of babies, the sick, and the defective is to go on living, and will even appoint a legal guardian who, as the word suggests, is commissioned to defend his ward's interest. Yet Furedi concedes no weight whatsoever to the interests of the unborn child, and this because it is "deemed" -- as it were by legal stipulation -- not to be the kind of being that can have interests at all (cf. James Taranto's observation earlier).

Even in the 1970s it required a studied blindness not to see unborn children as rights-bearers. But to cling to that view today -- when, weeks before her granddaughter is born, grandma (who already knows her sex and her name) can watch her somersaulting in the womb on ultrasound video -- requires more than studied blindness; it takes a positive will to obliterate reality.

There's a scene in Macbeth -- (III,2), after Duncan and his servants have been murdered, and after Banquo's suspicions have been noted and his assassination arranged -- when Lady Macdeth begins to understand that things are spiraling out of control. She'd reached her goal (Macbeth's kingship), but was deprived of the peace of mind to take satisfaction in it. There's no going back to the time before her hands were bloodied, and yet the way forward can only mean more murder:

Nought's had, all's spent
Where our desire is got, without content.
'Tis safer to be that which we destroy,
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.

If I'm a business owner who is made to realize I was unjust to my employees, I might make amends -- say, by paying back-wages. Now suppose you're Ann Furedi, with a hand in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prematurely ended pregnancies. Should you ever come to suspect you were even partly wrong, how do you make your injustice real to yourself? How does your conscience do the accounting? Keep in mind that every maternity dress you see in a shop window and every Christmas carol you hear from a doorway gives another twist to the knife. What back-wages can you pay to your victims? Nought's had, all's spent. What I hear in Furedi's tensely constructed silence about the child is a kind of moral desperation akin to Lady Macbeth's. 'Tis safer to be that which we destroy, than to admit that anything was destroyed in the first place.

The magazine of Catholics for a Free Choice, incidentally, is named Conscience.

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