CathBlog - Free choice, but only if you're rich and powerful


In political rhetoric in the lead-up to the November 27 state election, the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, claims that there are 200 babies born daily in Victoria, and he wants to give children “the best start” in life. 

Yet, the “best start” shifted radically under his Government with the abortion law reform enacted during the last term of the Parliament. 

This shift in law shows something fundamental about human rights and how they are currently defined in Western, liberal democracies.

For example, it is the situation in Victoria that a baby can be born prematurely (e.g. after 20 weeks in the womb) and kept alive in state-run hospitals, while in the “next room” a baby of the same age can be aborted and killed. 

How can this situation occur? One major reason this can occur is because we have lost a fundamental understanding of our natural, human rights, which undergirds our democracy and its laws. Instead, the ground has shifted to an ill-defined notion of individualism where the feelings and choices of individuals with power predominate. 

These natural rights are, for example, at the foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the US Constitution. These documents do not create rights, but recognise them. There is an important difference here. 

For example, the understanding at the foundation of the US Constitution is that humans have natural – and divinely-guaranteed – rights that are owed to them because they are humans created by God. These rights are not given by the state (or individuals), but owed to them by their natural right as humans. 

Of course, there are various difficulties in recognising these natural rights, yet in our daily lives we naturally undertake this recognition, such as by respecting the other’s right to live by not killing him/her. 

Without this recognition, we could not have a functioning society. The importance of natural rights is that no power, organisation or dictator bestows rights – and can change them – according to their whims. 

In the postmodern, “liberal” world, the human rights discourse has become skewed, especially because of the sentimental individualism that now defines what it means to be a human. Post-modern liberalism tends to place the emphasis on free choice as defining individual rights, yet choice cannot be absolute. 

The fact that “I” am free and have the rights to follow my desires and feelings can undermine the rights of others and our relationships. Moreover, my choices and rights are dependent on others for their actualisation. 

For example, I may want an abortion, but it can only be realised with the help of others, such as clinics and doctors; or I may want the latest fashion, but that can only be realised with shops, factories, workers, etc.

Classical liberalism tries to solve this problem by allowing individual choice up to the point it causes harm to others (which involves state intervention to police). The problem with this approach is that humans do not have absolute knowledge to predict when their free choices will incur harm to others. 

The danger of this situation is that what we are left with is power.  The strongest define what is allowable and right. In Western democratic capitalism, it is the middle and upper classes that define what is right and what it means to be human. They have the money and votes to do so. 

While the modern West also has a sensitivity to minority rights that is commendable, even these rights can be overcome when at the service of the individual in power. Abortion is an example of this. 

The fundamental question for the West has now become whether it can recover its natural law tradition and restore natural rights so to re-form a proper foundation for our social lives, laws and governments. The integrity (or dignity) of the human person is absolute. 

We may feel tempted to abrogate the integrity of the other for a seemingly greater good. However, this leads to a “slippery slope” that leaves our integrity and dignity subject to the will and whim of humans where it can be manipulated. It is the absoluteness of our dignity that undergirds human rights. 

Thus, the words of the Victorian Premier seem to have a hollow ring. No matter how good the Premier’s educational and social policies are (which may give Victorians great opportunities) if our fundamental, natural rights are not upheld then there is a foundational problem that threatens us all, particularly the weakest.

A longer version of this blog is available here.

Joel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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