Monday, October 31, 2011

Unalienable Rights and Personhood

Last night I was tooling around Facebook looking for inspiration when I came across something on Bill Fortenberry's facebook page called The Personhood Initiative. He had put up some "debates" that looked more like a compilation of regurgitated talking points and conversations he's had with people who don't support fetal personhood laws. I read with interest his quote from John Quincy Adams which said:

"The acknowledgment of the unalienable right of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is at the same time an acknowledgment of the omnipotence, the omniscience, and the all-pervading goodness of God."

From this quote, Bill concludes that unalienable rights can only come from God. I find this both amusing and incredibly dishonest for a few reasons.

1. Just because John Quincy Adams believed something doesn't make it true. Neither is a thing true just because some of the Founding Fathers wrote it down. If anything ought to be a "self-evident" truth, then that should definitely be.

2. Adams's concept of God was far different from what most Christians' (and I suspect Mr. Fortenberry's) concept of God is. Adams was a Unitarian and, in this oration to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, he refers many times to the "One True God" of his understanding. As a Unitarian, he denied the Trinity which means he denied that Jesus Christ was God, a belief that most people would say earned him a one-way ticket to hell.

3.  Jefferson's mention of the Creator when he wrote, "...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." refers to his previous paragraph when he appeals to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," a god-concept that is more deist in flavor than orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

4. The concept of the "natural rights of man" was a philosophical product of the Enlightenment era and was diametrically opposed to the "divine right to rule" that was predominant in cultures for most of human history. The entire point of natural rights is that they an emergent property of humanity, something intrinsic to a living, breathing human being. Natural rights could not be granted by a king's decree. They could not be taken away by a priest's dictate. They were in no way contingent upon the favor of another person whether that person be mortal or divine.

Adams' oration to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society is an interesting read. He speaks of these unalienable rights as being specific to born humans. He also couples these rights with the "law of duty" in which it is understood that the only purpose of these rights is to use them for moral and intellectual pursuits that strengthen society. It is the duty of man, he says, to use his unalienable rights to unravel the scientific mysteries of the world and to pursue truth. He praises the pagan philosophers and scientists who persisted in their inquiries against heavy opposition from both pagan religions and the Catholic Church. He held scientific truth to be greater than any religious dogma. And he described man's "pursuit of happiness" as being the pursuit of this knowledge for the benefit of the rest of society.

Nowhere in any of his speech do we find the idea that unalienable rights are contingent upon the existence of a particular god-concept. What we do find is that those rights are contingent upon our nature as humans and that the words we use to describe that source of humanity (God, Nature, etc.) are just that - descriptions based upon our perceptions and belief.

If we hold to Adams' beliefs about the rights of man, we must conclude that no unborn can enjoy full unalienable rights because they lack the capacity to understand and exercise the duties that go with them. This belief is consistent with modern law which recognizes corporations as legal "persons" because they are entities endowed with certain rights and charged with certain duties. They are persons because they have needs and desires like any other born human and they are capable of benefiting society. So legal personhood is not simply based on having unique human DNA and being self-replicating - it is also based on the human will to prosper and the responsibility to promote the general welfare. Regardless of how much a fetus is wanted and loved, it cannot meet those requirements.

Does this give us carte blanche to rip every unborn out of the womb any time we wish? Absolutely not! Although the unborn cannot have full legal personhood before birth, it is on the path to personhood - just as it is on the path to becoming born. And the longer it remains on this path, the greater its rights become as they bloom and unfurl over those 40 weeks. Roe v Wade made this clear and established that this unripe "right to life" must be balanced at all times with the full rights of the mother. Therefore, the farther along a pregnancy is, the more difficult it is to justify (and obtain) an elective abortion.

The Founders' concept of unalienable rights is a fascinating and complex one that takes the reader on a journey of what it means to be a human. The answers they describe are not simple soundbytes to be parroted at one's convenience like so much propaganda. They require us to examine ourselves and to study the nature of human society. They require us to harness our talents and pool our resources so that we can promote the preservation of those rights and passionately defend them from kings and priests who seek to usurp our freedom. They challenge us to constantly reexamine our social contract to ensure that, in establishing our legal rights, we have not ceded the natural rights that define us. The unalienable rights of men and women are, fundamentally, the gold standard by which we as human can judge ourselves and society.

What fertilized egg can do that?