The way to discover fundamental rights (and duties) is to examine the nature of something.
(NCR) In the battle over abortion, rhetoric has played no small role in persuading and convincing people to either side of the debate. Some pro-choice advocates, since a civil right to abortion has been denied by the Supreme Court in the Dobbs case, have thrown around the phrase “fundamental right” in relation to abortion. Such a claim brings the fight to the battlefield of philosophy, whereas the question as to whether or not there is a civil right stands in the field of law. Civil rights come from a constitution or governing body. Fundamental rights are something else.
The Declaration of Independence claims that some rights are inalienable: the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To be inalienable, these rights cannot rest on any government structure. An inalienable right is one that cannot be taken away by any tyrant, democracy or court. An inalienable right is a fundamental right, also sometimes known as an intrinsic right.
How do we know about these rights, and how do we know what they are? While I have written about rights in other places, I will summarize here that a fundamental right is something due to an individual based on the common human nature we all share and the nature of our relationships with each other.
For example, a parent-child relationship is a specific kind of relationship that carries with it things that the parents owe to their children and that the children owe to their parents, all based on the nature of the relationships.
If there are things that others owe to us, then there are also things we owe to others. Children have rights; so parents have duties.
In short, the way to discover fundamental rights (and duties) is to examine the nature of something. Justice is rooted in nature. This is why it is called natural law — it is the law dictated to us by human nature. That is why natural rights are the same as intrinsic, fundamental or inalienable rights.
Everybody recognizes and understands this when it comes to anything else in the world. Tomato plants have a particular nature, and they have to be cared for in a particular way, according to that nature, or else they will not thrive. They need sun, water and the right kind of soil. You cannot do whatever you want to a tomato plant and expect it to thrive. The same is true for the human person, our relationships and our bodies. The difference for humans, though, is that our actions have moral, psychological and spiritual consequences as well.
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The question about abortion isn’t a mere question of whatever a woman wants to do with her body; it is a question of the process of procreation, the nature of the relationships involved and the nature of the body parts. For example, it is clear that the nature of the eye is such that it is made to see. Damaging an eye so that it cannot see is an injustice against the eye. Since the eye serves an important function to the human being, it would be an injustice to purposely damage someone’s eye, including one’s own.
The nature of a uterus is to protect and nurture the life of a new human being. A woman’s body is one that, by nature, can give nourishment to children until they are weaned. The very essence of a woman’s body is to love and care for new life, for the new body (and soul!) of a baby.
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Just because the body belongs to a woman does not mean that she can do whatever she wants with it. Just as it would be an injustice for someone to gouge out his own eyes, so it would be an injustice for a woman to do the exact opposite of what her body was made for.
Not only that, but the nature of the relationship with the child demands the duty to love and care for that child. The person in her womb has a body of his or her own. Pregnancy necessarily involves the body of another human being, not just the body of the woman; it involves the rights of the child and the duty of the mother according to the essential nature of the most intimate human relationship on earth.
This has all sounded a bit scientific, abstract and philosophical, but the same conclusion can be reached by looking at art, literature and the plain testimony of healthy human experience. The vast corpus of works created around and inspired by the beauty of the way of a man with a woman and the resulting way of a woman with her baby is overwhelming and astounding. Is there any greater tenderness? Any greater natural affection?
Any psychologically healthy person would say that one of the greatest moments in his or her life is the birth of a child. It alters one’s life for the better, makes one want to be a better person, and inspires an awe and wonder unique in the universe.
The art and beauty, too, is part of the nature of motherhood, and together with the more abstract reflections helps make clear that there is no fundamental right to abortion. Please note, also, that these arguments do not rely on Christian teaching. These are conclusions based on common human experience and reason.
Editor's note: This article is reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register – www.ncregister.com.