The right to life is the very first right named in the Declaration of Independence. In Thomas Jefferson's memorable formulation, the United States of America was founded on the recognition that all human beings are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Pope John Paul II has reiterated often this special commitment of the United States to human rights. He has observed that "at the center of the moral vision of [the American] founding documents is the recognition of the rights of the human person...." The greatness of the United States, he adds, lies in "respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development" (John Paul II, Departure Remarks at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, October 8, 1995). Today the responsibility is ours to ensure that these same principles continue to inform our exercise of self-government.
Nowhere is this responsibility more clear than in connection with the contemporary assault on the fundamental right to life. To devalue life is to strike at the very foundations on which the American republic is erected. Without the right to life no other rights are possible; to the extent that life itself is jeopardized, all other rights are equally threatened.
Today we are experiencing the "extraordinary increase and gravity of threats to the life of individuals and peoples.... In addition to those ancient scourges of poverty, hunger, endemic diseases, violence and war," John Paul warns, "new threats are emerging on an alarmingly vast scale" (The Gospel of Life, no. 3). Among these new threats, the U.S. bishops identify "abortion and euthanasia [as the] preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition of all others..." (Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium, p. 13, quoting Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, no. 5).
John Paul has commended the U.S. bishops "for their leadership and advocacy in support of human life, particularly the lives of the most vulnerable":
The Church in your country reaches out in defense and promotion of human life and human dignity in numerous ways. Through countless organizations and agencies she is an immensely generous provider of social services to the poor; active in support of laws more favorable to the immigrant; present in the public debate on capital punishment. ... At the same time, you rightly underscore the priority that must be given to the fundamental right to life of the unborn and to opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. (Ad limina address to the bishops of California, Nevada and Hawaii, Oct. 2, 1998)
It may well be that the public would prefer not to be reminded of such uncomfortable truths at the present moment. A decade of almost unprecedented economic prosperity and the absence of major international tensions have tended to promote indifference to the suffering of others. We are perhaps less inclined to accept the challenge offered us of "living the gospel of life." The long-standing nature of the controversy surrounding abortion, to which must now be added the persistent demand for the legalization of assisted suicide, as well as the increasing resort to capital punishment, are often perceived as unresolvable disputes. Public figures would prefer not to have to deal with them at all, and it is not surprising to find them exploring ways to soften the hard edges of positions previously taken. A conspiracy of silence begins to feed an inclination for collective amnesia. We would simply rather not be reminded of the massive legal violation of human rights taking place every day in our midst.
Public amnesia, however, exacts a terrible cost. It is nothing less than losing touch with who we are as a nation. By ignoring an ugly part of our social reality, we begin to forget who we are. We construct a comfortable reality around our busy lives and material goods to block out the reality of injustice and inhumanity perpetrated on the unborn, the dying and the condemned. But the pattern cannot continue for long without causing social and political disorientation. Permitting the rights of some to be ignored revises the whole concept of rights. We now regard them not as rights received from our Creator, and therefore "unalienable," but as rights dispensed by courts and legislatures. Like every other creation of the government, rights become subject to emendation and suspension. If the rights of some have become arbitrary, then the rights of all have become uncertain. By forgetting the denigration of the rights of the most defenseless, we also forget the extent to which the enjoyment of our rights has become correspondingly uncertain.
An issue of rights cannot be subjected to the normal give and take of the political process. One who is willing to compromise on rights is an opportunist, rather than an honest broker of the public good. The normal process of negotiating disagreements is only possible because some things are off the negotiating table, no matter how much political muscle the contending parties may possess. No one will be asked to surrender what is guaranteed them by the Bill of Rights. Agreement on fundamental principles enables us to accommodate our differences over policy. Factions in politics do not necessarily lead to fractures within the constitutional order. But it is quite otherwise when our disagreements extend to a question of rights. Then the potential is more deadly.
Rights are indivisible. If only some human beings possess them then they are not truly human rights. They are merely the advantages that the politically more powerful enjoy over the most vulnerable. Such domination of some over others is precisely what the rule of law is expected to prevent. The law is there to ensure that the strong do not oppress the weak; all have equal rights in law. But when domination occurs under cover of law and is even accorded the status of a right, the entire constitutional system is infected with corruption. Law cannot play favorites and still remain what law is meant to be. An abrogation of the most fundamental right to life, not merely in practice, but in law itself, constitutes more than an ordinary political problem. It precipitates a crisis of a moral and constitutional nature--a crisis which has been ongoing for more than a quarter of a century since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973).
Since that time the Catholic Church has been in the forefront of the call for reversal of the decision. The Church was among the very first in 1973 to draw attention to the departure that Roe v. Wade represented from the most basic principles of the American political tradition. In 1998 the U.S. bishops said: "As Americans, as Catholics and as pastors, we write ... to call our fellow citizens back to our country's founding principles, and most especially to renew our national respect for the rights of those who are unborn, weak, disabled and terminally ill. Real freedom rests on the inviolability of every person as a child of God" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 6).
One of the greatest political contributions the Church can make in the contemporary world is to bear witness in this way to the true source whence the rights of human beings are derived. Human rights do not originate in political decrees, nor can they be suspended by legislation or adjudication. "No one but the Creator is the sovereign of basic human rights" beginning with the right to life. We are daughters and sons of the one God who, outside and above us all, grants us the freedom, dignity and rights of personhood which no one else can take away" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 15).
The Church today finds itself in a familiar role: speaking truth to power. That voice is all the more essential when the power is exercised through democratic institutions or acquiesced in through widespread indifference. American Catholics are uniquely called to be the leaven that spreads through the nation, recalling it to its fundamental purpose. At no time is that leaven more badly needed than when the founding principles of the political order have not simply been disregarded, but deliberately distorted to yield a consequence directly contrary to their central tenets. If preceding generations had heard that Americans would one day argue that liberty includes the right to do away with life, they would have been astonished at the illogic. The right to exercise freedom to make choices presupposes respect for life as inviolable. Choice cannot be regarded as in any sense prior to life.
Our responsibility as Catholics and as citizens does not end with opposition to abortion and assisted suicide. We must never be indifferent to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and health care. Therefore, Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized in all these areas. ... But [because the legal protection of innocent human life is basic] being "right" in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the "rightness" of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 23).
Actual public debate may involve a range of complex considerations, particularly in regard to the best way of confronting the challenge. "But," as the U.S. bishops remind us, "for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in his image" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 21). The imperative for life is an elementary truth, enduring behind the conflicting positions that may characterize our broader social context. The question for Catholics is therefore how to advance the sanctity of each human life within a pluralistic setting. How do we best promote the centrality of the right to life, as the condition for all other rights, within a society that lacks that clarity of perspective?
Our approach to faithful citizenship begins with moral principle. The most effective means is to insist on the centrality of the life imperative. As Catholics we should ensure that our fellow citizens do not forget the primacy of life, or the foundational role it occupies within the constitutional order of rights we enjoy. We should encourage public figures and those who would lead to defend life.
In The Gospel of Life Pope John Paul II notes the responsibility that public figures bear for the outcome of their actions in this regard. Neither respect for the opinions of others nor the quest for legal compromises can excuse condoning the killing of innocent human beings (no. 74). A consistent ethic of life requires from all of us consistent opposition to killing and, where full protection is not possible, every effort to minimize the extent of human destruction involved.
Neutrality is not an option. The claim that one does not wish to impose his views on others is sometimes put forward as a reason for saying nothing about the protection of life. The hollowness of such a position is perhaps best exemplified by comparing it to the statement: "While I am personally opposed to slavery or racism or sexism, I cannot force my personal view on the rest of society" (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 24 ). The neutrality of the constitutional order is not a total neutrality in regard to all values. It cannot countenance positions that run directly contrary to the very principles on which an order of rights is constructed. Just as our nation does not permit people to make up their own minds about the permissibility of slavery, so it should not regard the protection of life as a matter of purely private choice. The illusion of neutrality implied in the exercise of choice is false. Choice is itself an expression of permissibility and therefore a legal endorsement of the acceptability of killing.
In many ways, the model for public leadership in a context where the nation faces a profound assault on its underlying principles is provided by Abraham Lincoln. The slavery crisis was a similarly intractable conflict within American society. As an institution slavery had legal protection; as a social institution it had widespread support. Lincoln understood that it collided massively with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet, alone, he was not able constitutionally to effect its abolition. His policy was to adhere to the rule of law where it applied, while at the same time working mightily to bring about the longer term change that would achieve abolition. A similar exercise of leadership is called for by the mounting crisis generated by expanding assaults on the right to life.
An indispensable source of strength for the struggle is given to us in the words of the Church, and in the love of our Savior which is poured out for each human being. Our refusal to countenance the devaluation of any human life, no matter how marginal, arises from our participation in this act of divine love. The conviction of the inviolability of human life may best be sustained within this transcendent perspective, but there are abundant intimations of its truth within the secular world as well. As Christians it is important to reach out to all men and women of good will, and indeed to join with them in bringing forth the best possibilities present within our imperfect world. That common ground is most powerfully present in American secular principles of respect and reverence for individual dignity. The language of human rights is in many ways a secular reflection of the love of God creating and redeeming every human being. By embracing the common language of our world, Christians can demonstrate most effectively that their concern with the protection of innocent human life cannot simply be dismissed as a peripheral religious concern. It is rather a means of recalling the secular world to the best aspirations of its own principles. By seeking to make the Gospel of Life central to political life, Christians can make their fullest contribution to the common good of the nation.
David Walsh is professor of politics at Catholic University of America.