Exclusive or inclusive? Two views of human rights
Human embryos and fetuses are living human organisms. They are members of the species Homo sapiens at the earliest stages of their lives.
But many people believe that these human beings in utero do not have a right to life. Why not? Because they are different from the rest of us in some way that (allegedly) matters. They are younger, smaller, less developed, more dependent. They look different. They can't think and reason the way we do. They don't meet the criteria necessary to be a "person" with rights.
This is an exclusive view of human rights because it holds that only some (not all) humans have rights.
The exclusive view excludes valuable people
What's wrong with the exclusive view? One problem is that it doesn't just exclude unborn children. It excludes other human beings as well—anyone who does not yet (e.g., the very young) or no longer (the old and sick) or never will (the disabled) have the required characteristics.
This is true regardless of the specific criteria that are offered. If independence from the bodies of others ("viability") is necessary to have rights, then some conjoined twins do not have rights. If a stereotypical "human" appearance is necessary, then people with extreme deformities are excluded. If being wanted or loved by others is necessary, then some homeless people don’t count.
Many bioethicists and philosophers believe that an individual must have an immediate capacity for certain higher mental functions in order to qualify as a person. But this standard may exclude people who are temporarily comatose. It may exclude people with serious mental disabilities or dementia. And it excludes human infants.
That's why a number of prominent ethicists who support abortion argue that infanticide is also permissible. "The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus," write two philosophers in the Journal of Medical Ethics, "in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual."
But killing newborn children is obviously wrong.
The exclusive view undermines equality
Another problem with the exclusive view is that any of the proposed criteria come in degrees. People are more or less intelligent, more or less biologically developed, more or less self-aware, more or less sentient, more or less dependent on others. No two people are exactly equal according to any of those characteristics. So if those traits are the basis for having a right to life, then some people have a greater right to life than others. Some people are more valuable and some people are less valuable. Equality is a myth.
"It is hard to avoid the sense that our egalitarian commitments rest on distressingly insecure foundations," acknowledges philosopher Jeff McMahan, a defender of abortion. McMahan worries about "the compatibility of our all-or-nothing egalitarian beliefs with the fact that the properties on which our moral status appears to supervene are all matters of degree."
But there is an alternative. The alternative is an inclusive view of human rights.
The inclusive view
Human beings have rights, on this view, simply because they are human (hence the term "human rights"). We have rights not because of what we can do, or what we look like, or what other people feel or decide about us, but rather because of what (the kind of being) we are. Nothing else is required. There is no other test or threshold we must meet.
Thus human rights, according to the inclusive view, are universal—they belong to every human being. Infants are included. People with dementia are included. People who are unwanted and neglected and marginalized are included. Moreover, we are all fundamentally equal because the basis for our worth and dignity is something we share in common. We are equally human. We are all the same kind of being regardless of our countless differences.
So we all matter. And we are all equal.
What about unborn children? Unborn children are human beings. If the inclusive view is true—if all human beings have human rights—then unborn children have human rights too. That's why the inclusive view usually goes by a different name. It's called the pro-life view.
These, then, are the two options when it comes to the scope of human rights. Either all human beings matter because they are human (the inclusive view) or only some human beings matter because they possess certain attributes that other humans lack (the exclusive view).
The exclusive view, of course, has a very long and very unflattering track record. People have thought that rights belong only to those with a specific gender, or skin color, or ethnicity, or social status. This history should make us deeply skeptical of today's exclusion of unborn children.
"Every previous division of humankind into two classes in which one half was permitted to dispose of the other at will … [is now] universally recognized as evil," writes philosopher Christopher Kaczor. "In every case, the powerful judged the vulnerable as lacking some characteristic which, in the view of the powerful, made the weaker human beings unfit for basic respect. Do we really have reason to believe that for the very first time in human history we are justified in treating some human beings as less than fully persons?"
The exclusive view has always been wrong. And it will always be wrong. Only the inclusive view provides a foundation for justice and equality.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of NRL News.