Why the Right-to-Life Matters, Human Rights or God-Given Rights, Part II

See Part I here.

What do we mean by “human dignity”? It is an admittedly hard-to-define term often used by both believers and non-believers alike in vastly different ways, or even rejected altogether as a “stupid” concept (e.g., Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity”, The New Republic, May 28, 2008).

Following moral theologian William E. May, we can, in fact, speak of a three-fold dignity of human persons (cf: An Introduction to Moral Theology):

  1. An intrinsic dignity that is a gift from God given at our creation in the “image” and “likeness” of God {Gn 1:26}; it is inalienable;
  2. A dignity that is a work or acquisition of ours by means of making morally good free choices and doing good actions; it is a dignity that can be diminished by doing evil deeds, by personal sin; and
  3. The dignity of the blessed – a graced dignity that begins here and now through the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love – to be perfected in heaven.

This is how the Catholic Church understands human dignity; it is, moreover, how we are able to ground the praise and blame of human persons (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, Q. 93, a. 4 on this three-fold dignity, where he speaks in terms of creation, re-creation, and likeness).

PregnantWomanTo summarize this natural law account of human rights and human dignity, we can turn again to Robert P. George, who speaks of how “the natural human capacities for reason and freedom are fundamental to the dignity of human beings – the dignity that is protected by human rights.”  These capacities, he continues, are “God-like” and “immaterial and spiritual in nature” (Conscience and Its Enemies).

The secular culture, however, rejects this account. It views the human person not only materialistically, but dualistically (i.e., seeing the person as separate from his/her body, which is considered of lesser value) and defines dignity in terms of absolute autonomy (i.e., I can choose and do whatever I want, as long as I don’t harm anyone; it’s untethered from the truth about God and man).

But it is how secularism views the human person that really betokens many of its moral stances – from the beginning-of-life and its willingness to countenance embryonic stem cell research and abortion to the end-of-life and its willingness to countenance euthanasia.

For example, according to this secular/dualistic view, if a person loses his or her ability to do the particular kinds of things that persons do, then he or she is no longer considered a person and no longer has a right to life; but rather, he/she has the right (and sometimes the duty) to die!

According to the Catholic Church, which works with a holistic anthropology, thus capturing the profound unity of the human person as an embodied being (cf. VS, 48), these kinds of acts are intrinsically wrong because they always in some way harm human goods and human persons (cf. VS, 80). Hence, the Church and sound ethics affirm the existence of moral absolutes – i.e., acts which ought never to be done regardless of the person’s intention or end or situation –because there are absolute human rights (cf. John Finnis, Natural Law & Natural Rights).

Here’s how Pope John Paul II describes the current anti-life situation in his magnificent 1995 encyclical on the life issues, Evangelium vitae:

Here though we shall concentrate particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its earliest and in its final stages, attacks which present new characteristics with respect to the past and which raise questions of extraordinary seriousness. It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer to be considered as “crimes”; paradoxically they assume the nature of “rights,” to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defense. Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family-the family which by its nature is called to be the “sanctuary of life.”

How did such a situation come about? Many different factors have to be taken into account. In the background there is the profound crisis of culture, which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics, and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and his duties. Then there are all kinds of existential and interpersonal difficulties, made worse by the complexity of a society in which individuals, couples and families are often left alone with their problems. There are situations of acute poverty, anxiety or frustration in which the struggle to make ends meet, the presence of unbearable pain, or instances of violence, especially against women, make the choice to defend and promote life so demanding as sometimes to reach the point of heroism.

All this explains, at least in part, how the value of life can today undergo a kind of “eclipse,” even though conscience does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person.

Human life – a “sacred and inviolable” value – is threatened and attacked today because it is no longer perceived as having infinite value; our “culture of death” treats certain categories of human beings, such as embryos and PVS patients, as non-persons.

But every human life, no matter its age, condition, social status, sex, size, color, creed, ethnicity, etc., has the dignity of persons and is entitled to the full panoply of natural human rights, along with their protections.

The Right-to-Life

It’s becoming ever-more clear that to grasp the idea that human beings have the right to life, a “culture of life” is needed (cf. Pope John Paul II, EV, Ch. 4). We need to work hard on all fronts to build this particular culture: educational, legal, charitable, bioethical, medical, political, philosophical, theological, and so on.  It won’t be easy!

Life is, of course, the most essential and fundamental good, at least in the sense that it is the cornerstone for all of the other rights that we have, as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) affirms. But it’s not the only basic good and thus not the only fundamental human right that we have (e.g., we have rights to education, to health care, and so on).

We have a right to life because life is an intrinsic good: That is, we don’t “have” or “own” our bodies, but rather, we are our bodies – living body-persons. Life is our concrete essence as persons. But when human life is treated as an instrumental good, i.e., good only for what it can do or accomplish, then we have, in truth, harmed the person. Yet if we have harmed the person, then we have not loved him or her.  And clearly then we have not respected his or her rights; we have violated them.

But, as Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II reminds us with his “personalistic norm”, the only proper response to another person is love (cf. Love & Responsibility). And Jesus himself commands us similarly with the dual love commandment: to love God above everything and our neighbor as our self {see e.g., Mt 22: 36-40}.


Proclaiming these truths about the human person and affirming his or her rights and dignity is part and parcel the work of the “new evangelization” – of calling the “baptized pagans” (George Weigel) back to a relationship with Jesus Christ and calling those who have never had a relationship with Him to have one.

Let us work tirelessly on behalf of human life, knowing that it is not about the numbers converted or the lives saved, important as that is, but about being faithful to the mission the Lord has given us! That’s how true success in God’s Kingdom is measured. But this will happen only if we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.  Let that be our prayer as we go forward in our right-to-life ministry.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
Articles by Mark:

  • Boxed In.

    Perhaps the problem is that the focus of the Catholic Church is on people who are not born as yet and those who are about to depart. In the meantime they have supported governments by not speaking out about unjust conflicts and political decisions that have consigned those living to death, poverty, homelessness and other life devaluing events. In the USA this has been evident since the time of Vietnam and the embedding of Chaplains in the Defence forces only goes to show the Church as another arm of the military and the government.
    The “just war” theory was a cop out in the time of Augustine and it is seen as an even greater problem in the war with drones. The message of Jesus has been carefully massaged by Christian Church Leaders to support all colours of Government and their decisions. It allows for the killing of the youth of so many countries. How is this possible? Are the tax exemptions and the positions of honour in the defence force commemorations worth it?
    If you look carefully at the history of settlement in the Americas you will find the Church on the side of the murdering forces. They were combatting so called paganism and idolatry. Really?
    Which “right to life” are you working for? Do you think most readers would like the church to be working for those who are alive already?

    • Mark Latkovic

      It’s hard to take seriously & respond to a comment that begins with the following sentence: “Perhaps the problem is that the focus of the Catholic Church is on people who are not born as yet and those who are about to depart.”