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We, as a society, are, rightly, concerned with ‘rights.’ There are those who might argue we are too obsessed with them, perhaps at the expense of emphasising that they ought to come with duties. ‘Human rights’ are something we would all wish to be seen to be supporting, even those, such as myself, who would argue that the phrase can be misleading.

How so? If it is taken to mean that the mere fact of being human confers certain inalienable rights upon us, then that would, historically, be incorrect. Mankind has not generally acted, or legislated, as though the simple fact of being human gave one certain rights. In so far as legal systems are outgrowths of what a society wishes to valorise, they have tended to protect property, class, caste and privileges, rather than supposed inherent rights. But, in the modern era, at least in the West, this has changed. All sorts of ‘rights’ are now legally protected. Life, it would seem, is recognised as being of intrinsic value. The idea of arguing, as men and women did in the past in the West, that human beings could own each other as commodities, is, rightly, seen as abhorrent. So much so that it has taken too much time for us to recognise the phenomenon of modern slavery.

It is, for many of us, a sign of civilisation at work that special attention has been paid to women, who, at all times and in all places, have tended to find themselves at a disadvantage to men in various ways. Whilst one might ague about some of the ways in which these rights have been gained, and even asserted, it is all small beer concerned with the gains. Any society which uses the talents of only half its members properly, suffers for it.

All of which makes it so odd that the greatest discrimination against the female sex has the ardent support of so many women. If I were to say that 50,000 women a year were prevented from having a better life by legislation, I daresay there would be an outcry; and I daresay I’d be part of it. So far, solidarity holds. But if I go on to say, as I am doing, that 50,000 female lives a year are lost in India, then there would, rightly, be a huge outpouring of wrath; until I mentioned that that is the figure of female lives ended by abortion in that country. At that point the solidarity ends.

There are generally two sorts of reaction. The first is to deny that the foetus is a life at all; it is not ‘a woman’, it is a potential woman. How like Aristotle’s argument for slavery, which held that slaves, although like humans, were not fully human, they lacked certain characteristics enjoyed by those he thought fully human. Throughout human history, acts of cruelty towards groups of people have often been justified by arguments which effectively dehumanised them. Perhaps somewhere, the residual respect for human life demands that before it is exterminated on any scale, one has first to argue that what is being destroyed is not human in the way you and I are. And, of course, the arguments in favour of abortion are all, as President Reagan noticed, advanced by those who are alive.

The second reaction is to assert the rights of the mother. The mother it is asserted, has a right to decide what to do with her own body. For the sake of this argument, the mother’s body has four hands, hour feet, two heads and two hearts. Again, we avoid any recognition that there is a separate human being involved in the argument. In the name of the rights of the woman, there are, a 2014 report argued, 200 million fewer women in the world than there would have been without abortion.

Under UK law, gender selective abortion is illegal; yet it happens. The idea that all feminists passed by on the other side here is not the case; some leading feminists did, indeed, protest at ‘gendercide‘. It ought to trouble all of us that so many female lives are lost; indeed, that so many lives are prevented from coming into being.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong:

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law (CCC2271)

All human life is sacred. We are all made in God’s image. The destruction of one of God’s children is a sin which cries to Heaven. The destruction of tens of millions is the same sin on a larger scale. That it is condoned by large numbers of people in our society gives pause for thought about what we have become as a society. What is it we place value upon? Human rights, or the right of ourselves to do what we like within a liberal and permissive interpretation of the law?

Here, as elsewhere, the Church refuses to take an instrumentalist view of our job as stewards of God’s earth. None of which is to claim any quick or easy answers, but it to pose the question about the real commitment of our society to ‘human rights.’