Copyright Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd
- LIFE TO THE FULL
The Right to Life
When we are confronted with pictures of genocide victims dug up (e.g. of Srebrenica) we know “Those were people like us, and something terrible happened to them.” Our emotional reaction gives us an immediate perception of the violation and destruction of something of immense value, a human life. It is gross violations of the right to life that most immediately force upon us a sense of the objective inviolability of human worth, which is the foundation of our knowledge of the objectivity of ethics in general and of rights in particular. To be sceptical about something as ethically basic as the terribleness of evil suffered by the victims of genocide would be not only wrong but an evil act against the victims of evil.24
To lack such emotions (as can happen for example with autistics) is to miss out on a crucial source of ethical understanding, and, as Jesus makes clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to fail to respond to a victim left for dead beside the road is to fail in our common humanity.
Christian thinking has always shown particular concern for the rights to life of those whom some more inhuman societies regarded as expendable, such as the physically or mentally disabled. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The starting point for every reflection on disability is rooted in the fundamental convictions of Christian anthropology: even when disabled persons are mentally impaired or when their sensory or intellectual capacity is damaged, they are fully human beings and possess the sacred and inalienable rights that belong to every human creature … the more we move about in the dark and unknown areas of human reality, the better we understand that it is in the more difficult and disturbing situations that the dignity and grandeur of the human being emerges.”25 Human solidarity demands too that we remember those in mortal danger who are likely to be forgotten because “out of sight, out of mind”; they include political victims in dictators’ gaols, infants in remote villages where there is no clean water, and babies soon to be born who do not always attract the medical assistance available to prematurely-born babies of the same age.
The only situations that can raise the serious possibility that a right to life should be set aside are those where the rights to life of different persons may conflict, as in self-defence when under immediate attack, or in a just war where failure to collectively defend civilisation risks disaster. Another traditional exception, capital punishment, is more doubtful. There may be extreme circumstances such as a city under siege where it is necessary to the survival of others, but it is hard to believe that there is any need for it in modern civilised society. “Today, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offence incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’.”26 There is, of course, no excuse for regarding heresy or apostasy as reasons for capital punishment, as has been believed by some religions in the past and present to the lasting discredit of religion in general.
The urgent necessity to preserve rights to life can justify interventions by the state and private persons that would not be advisable in more normal circumstances. The Catholic Church has been strong in its support of the rights of families against state intervention, but there are certain families in which children are at grave risk to their lives, and Leo XIII writes that “if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them.”27 The same reasoning may justify interventions by states in other states where the right to life is being grossly violated by such acts as genocide or widespread torture; the excuse of “national sovereignty” has little weight beside the urgent demands of the victims (although the historical record of such interventions may suggest prudence in cases where there is a significant chance of making things worse).
Immediate threats to life are not the only situations where the right to life has implications for conduct. Constant attention to safety is demanded of individuals (for example, when driving cars), from those who design potentially dangerous products, equipment, buildings and services, and from both workers and employers at workplaces such as building sites. The work of those who increase lifespan, for example by medical practice and research, by military, police, security and judicial actions that suppress violence, by peace negotiations, or by work that raises safety standards and identifies and manages risks, is especially morally valuable because of its impact on the most basic of human rights.
The fundamental importance of the right to life means that it cannot be left as a matter of private morality. The political process cannot take a neutral stance to life, as if to say “Some people think the mentally ill (say) have a right to life, some don’t, so in a pluralist society both sides must be free to act according to their beliefs”. The very purpose of the State is, in the first instance, to protect life. “When he was told that the law could not legislate morality, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, used to say that the law could not make people love their neighbors but it could stop their lynching them.”28 It has been a long and difficult process to create in the West a political order that by and large does protect the right to life of individuals from violence both from other individuals, from the state itself and from external threats. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many who contributed to it.
The implications of the right to life extend to questions of health, since poor health is, at least in rich and peaceful countries, the most immediate threat to life. The difference in life expectancy between mainstream and remote Aboriginal Australians is a sign of violations of the right to life, which indicates the need for inquiry and action as to the present causes of Aboriginal mortality such as violence, fetal alcohol syndrome, kidney disease and lack of educational and work opportunities.
In a world which contains sufficient resources to support all in moderate comfort and the means of transferring them, the lack of adequate food, water and health care for some is a scandal that implies violations of the right to life. That is taken up in other chapters.
There are questions about how the right to life applies at the beginning and end of life, where there are complex interactions among medical evidence, technological possibilities, intolerable conditions of life and compassion. There are other questions as to whether non-human animals have any worth and rights. Those are serious issues, but wondering about them should not shake our solid sense of the worth of persons. I have an accurate idea of what it would be like to be shot in an act of ethnic cleansing, simply because I am a human. We mourn the deaths of all those whose lives were cut short.