Who Pays for Human Rights?


It is mildly heartening that the European Parliament “rejected” a bill that “as a human rights concern, abortion should be made legal, safe and accessible to all.” I say “mildly” and use quotes around “rejected” since you’d think calling infanticide a “fundamental human right” would yield zero Yea votes.

Nay. The “murder is a fundamental human right” side got 319 votes, with a majority 351 voting, not to remove the 319 members from Parliament for gross incompetence in the area of human dignity, but to send the bill back to committee.

Calling abortion a “fundamental human right” suggests that anyone who wants one should be able to get one. We say that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right since everyone should be able to practice whatever faith (or none) they so desire without coercion from an outside party. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right since everyone should be able to express their opinions, even on divisive matters, without being muffled by an outside party.

I’m just an economist, not a political theorist, but it seems that the historical understanding of a human right implies the exercise of an action that imposes no burden on others. I can worship Jesus Christ, Buddah, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster perfectly fine all by myself (yes, I know, it helps to have others and a church, but you get my point). I can haul a soapbox to a street corner or college quad and pontificate on Francis’ pontificate perfectly fine all by myself. Neither of those activities imposes any burdens on others. It would fall outside the understanding of the free exercise clause or free speech if I had a cop grab a minister to involuntarily pray with me, or if I had the city confiscate property upon which I could set my soapbox.

But abortion is not a solo act. In areas where abortion is not widely available (e.g., because doctors conscientiously object, because the local population abhors the procedure, because chastity is widely practiced), what methods would be necessary to guarantee the exercise of such a “fundamental human right?” The least offensive (if it could be described as such) way would seem to be to encourage more folks to become abortionists to “practice” in these underserved areas. Labor markets have an easy way of encouraging the provision of services to underserved areas: excess demand (more demand than supply) for the service provided by a particular occupation will tend to push up wages for that occupation. Why aren’t potential abortionists attracted by the presumably high wage? Noneconomic reasons, like the social stigma attached to abortion, must account for the dearth.

But, again, how can you overcome the social stigma to guarantee the exercise of this “fundamental human right?” If the least offensive way won’t work, then you have to move toward the more. There is certainly a push to normalize abortion, and perhaps the sheer number of its victims will put it into the “everyone has done it” status of mild acceptability. We all have a gay friend and that is supposed to be the reason why we accept same-sex marriage; pretty soon we will all have a friend who has had an abortion (if we don’t already) and that is to be the reason why we accept it. But the still small voice of God, spoken through our conscience, aided in a huge way by the advancement of ultrasound, can’t reject the knowledge that it is a life at conception. There will always be a social stigma, as there was with slavery, and rightly so.

So, if the possibility of high wages or the failure of a societal paradigm shift won’t make abortion universally available, then how to guarantee the exercise of this “fundamental human right?” The only way it can be done, it seems, is to violate other fundamental rights. If abortionists won’t come willingly, then we’ll have to force them. Either abortionists will have to move (or at least practice) in underserved areas, or other doctors in underserved areas will have to be pressed into serving this “fundamental human right.” This coercion is implied in the continual attempts to water down conscientious objection clauses, and is already seen in the HHS mandate. You will provide abortion or else.

This is never how we talk about human rights. Having the rights to life, liberty, and property do not impose burdens on others. We don’t force doctors at gunpoint or under threat of heavy fines to keep critically ill patients alive.

Among the numerous logical flaws of the pro-abortion movement is the attempt to call abortion a “fundamental human right.”

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Tim Shaughnessy is a cradle Catholic living in Shreveport, Louisiana with undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from Kalamazoo College, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Florida State University. He teaches economics at the undergraduate and graduate level, and is a faculty advisor for the campus Catholic student organization. He has worked at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and was the first managing editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality while an undergraduate. He also worked for Representative Harold Voorhees in the Michigan state legislature. He serves the parish RCIA program as a sponsor and lecturer, and is active in parish and diocesan pro-life activities.

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