quick thought on rights and persons

By now we’ve all heard about the attack on ‘religious freedom’ being perpetrated by Obama and his contraception crusade. And we’re starting to hear about how Virginia lawmakers are trying to redefine personhood in just the way that Mississippians failed to do last fall. Part of the retort to the the religious freedom folks is that what’s being trampled is precisely women’s rights: the right to choose whether or not to have a child, to abort an unwanted pregnancy, and not to have an ultrasound forced upon them when they seek out an abortion.

While I am in favor of women’s rights, I want to suggest that the invocation of rights is perhaps not the best method for combating the issue at hand. What ultimately happens in cases like this is a showdown between rights claims: women claim their rights demand respect; the religious claim their rights demand respect. It then comes down to a decision about whose rights have priority. The religious will claim, like Santorum, that their rights are God-given. Some women may claim the same thing, but it’s more likely that their claim will appeal to some notion of human or civil rights. If this is how the debate is framed–or even if it’s not framed explicitly this way, it tends to get construed this way when the debate revolves around rights claims–there’s a good chance that rights with a divine origin will be favored over those ‘merely’ granted by the state or via an appeal to an abstract concept of human equality.

This is not to say that fighting about rights is wrongheaded. I mean to suggest that it may be more effective to frame the issue at the level of personhood and moral standing. This, of course, is not the kind of thing that can be sufficiently framed and debated in the cable news, but that does not mean that the discourse should not be shifted away from rights talk to talk about what a person is and why we care about what happens to them. By keeping the discourse focused on rights, the question of personhood is neglected and before long a fertilized egg is granted the same set of rights as the woman carrying it. Now there are three sets of rights set in conflict, with no clear way of figuring out how to respect the claims of all three rights-holders.

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