March 24, 2011

Double standards & the American identity

By Andrew Haines *

In a recent article for Ethika Politika, Catherine Palmer asks whether double standards on fetal value are deforming America. In support, she notes a series of paradoxes about our language on pre- and post-born human life, and draws the conclusion that ambivalence concerning life is tantamount to consent in ending it.

In the end, Palmer offers the words of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994:

America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships.

Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity . . . I have no new teaching for America. I seek only to recall you to that faithfulness you once taught the world.

Palmer’s look at the effects of double standards – and ultimately the atrocity of legalized abortion – prompts a few questions. Most importantly, we might ask: is the defense of unborn life something we as a nation should take seriously for reasons other than ethical ones?

I don’t want to be misunderstood: abortion is wrong because it’s the intentional termination of innocent human life, an act that is never morally justifiable. But it deserves to be asked whether some current proponents of abortion might also find reason to reject it on the grounds of preserving a national identity and integrity.

It’s no mystery that pro-choice rhetoric is grounded firmly in a language of “rights” – a woman’s right to choose, rights to healthcare coverage, etc. But given Palmer’s paradoxes (e.g., things like charging drug-addict mothers with felonies while condoning open-access to cheap abortions) the very meaning of the word, “rights,” is totally obscured. In one case, an unborn fetus is the victim of a serious crime; and in another, she’s the unfortunate object of a lethal yet permissible procedure.

At bottom, ambiguity on the legal status of the unborn fetus is a dilemma that transcends morality. Rather, it’s something that threatens to undermine the integrity of personal identity across the board, be it in judicial, economic, or policy settings. If we can’t agree on just what a person is – i.e., on who is a bearer of rights and precisely why that’s the case – then arguing in favor of such rights (e.g., to life, to trade, to healthcare, to self-defense, etc.) is a vacuous measure.

Part of the strength of the American identity, as Mother Theresa rightly pointed out, has been our willingness and eagerness to teach the rest of the world the meaning of human dignity, hard work, and liberty – as she calls it, “faithfulness.” But as she points out, permitting discord at the “heart of the most intimate human relationships” has not only compromised our ability to do so, but has even “deformed [our] great nation” from within.

Mother Theresa provides answers to the questions I’ve posed here: personal rights are not privileges conferred by governments, but are grounded in the fact of humanity. They are, as Mother Theresa and pro-choicers would each agree, “entitlements.” But what they are – the meaning of such “rights” – is a product of the significance of human life itself. Authentic rights cannot contradict the goodness of life, nor the goodness or integrity of an enduring national identity.

To be American is, at bottom, to defend the inseparability of human life, liberty, and a pursuit of happiness. And permitting paradoxes to injure one’s understanding of any of these basic rights is, ultimately, to contradict the very thing that makes our nation great.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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