The fundamental right to life

The Declaration of Independence requires us to protect all life, even in the womb

In his article “Abortion: A question of values,” Keith Yost arrives at the conclusion that an embryo is a human life and has a right to life, but that the mother’s right to liberty may supersede the embryo’s right to life. We find his logic deeply flawed, and condemn the fundamental disregard for human life introduced by the application of relativism to human rights.

We begin by turning to the words of the Declaration of Independence, which entirely contradict Yost’s interpretation of human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The question is not, as Yost states, “whether we choose to assign [the embryo] human rights,” but rather whether we choose to respect the rights inherent in every human being. As freely acting agents, we may choose to infringe upon the rights of a person (with or without good cause), but we cannot choose to rescind a human right because we did not grant that right in the first place. Simply by virtue of being human, all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It is the duty of the state to protect those rights.

Yost later asserts that “there is no cardinal ordering of human rights that decides when one trumps another.” However, if we return to the words of the Declaration of Independence, “among these [rights] are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” we find exactly the sort of cardinal ordering of rights which Yost denies: without Life one cannot exercise Liberty, and without Liberty one cannot pursue Happiness. The right to life is a prerequisite for all other rights. Thus, the right to life is the fundamental human right. Yost himself calls it “the most basic of human rights.”

To deny the fundamental nature of the right to life is to deny the basis of all human rights. If, as Yost suggests, we were to accept the assignment of arbitrary precedence to human rights, we then must permit the justification of any infringement upon the rights of another. In a society where anyone can elevate their right to liberty or property or religion above another’s right to live, the weak are helpless before those who are able to assert their rights more strongly.

The laws of a relativist are laws of convenience; he will cherish the rights of others until those rights interfere with his infinite capacity for self-interest. Today, it is convenient for many to dismiss a fetus as something only partially human, just as it was convenient two centuries ago for plantation owners to dismiss blacks as merely three-fifths of a person. Measuring human life by race or by cognitive capacity does not capture the entire essence of being human, but rather limits the nature of being human to a convenient set of characteristics. We await the day when “all men are created equal” in the eyes of the law.

Yost is correct in arguing that “in order to enjoy the liberty to make one’s own decisions, you first need the mental capacity to rationally make those decisions for yourself.” With good cause, we may curtail the liberty of children, the mentally incapacitated, or a fetus. However, the mental capacity of a human is irrelevant to rights that do not depend on the exercise of free will. One does not choose to be conceived, and so one cannot forfeit the right to life due to lack of mental capacity.

Above all, we wish to emphasize that every human being, in every stage of life, has a fundamental and unalienable right to life which serves as the foundation for all other human rights in a just society. The right to life is granted by neither state nor men, but it is their duty to protect it.

Elise McCall ’11 is president of the Pro-Life Club. Matt Shireman is a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Tony Valderrama ’11 is chair of the Tech Catholic Community.