More philosophy: The Universal Right to Life

So, having been drawn into the topic of abortion lately by the comments, I want to wax philosophical1 about the antecedents to2 my beliefs about abortion.

One of the reasons I turned away from believing that abortion was largely wrong to seeing it as very difficult to understand (and eventually from there to believing that women are the best judges of whether they should have one or not) is the issue of the universal right to life. This may seem rather backwards to some people, as the right to life is a supporting argument to a pro-life position- but the reason it eventually led me to a pro-choice position was the problems with the universal right to life3 that make it a very extreme belief.

Firstly, the universal right to life is the most consistent justification for a pro-life point of view. It says simply that life itself grants the right to further life, and you only need DNA, enough size to have some sort of brain, and a pulse to have a right to life. As I said in the comments earlier, this has a number of implications: The first is, you better be one hell of an animal rights activist. Not only can someone who believes in a universal right to life that makes abortion immoral not eat meat, they have to be exactly as evangelical about vegetarianism as they do about their pro-life views. Also, you should probably move to somewhere they believe in reincarnation and sweep the street clear of insects if the right to life is to you, so sacred and universal, that you would never kill an animal.

Secondly, life implies violence4, and violence implies killing. Even if we don’t directly kill, business advantage takes food out of someone else’s mouth, we ignore poverty that leads to harm both here and overseas, we enable or directly wage wars, we stand back with our non-interventionist policies while other people oppress and murder each other, and that’s even ignoring all the times animals kill each other that we stand back and allow. If you believe in a universal right to life, you already have a lot of fires to put out.

So, many pro-life supporters don’t. There are two common restrictions on the right to life. The first is the personal restriction to killing: I believe in a right to life, so I will not kill. This is a functional position, but it prevents you from arguing for this standard for everyone else and thus imposing it by law, especially if you rely on others to kill for you- if you support war or soldiers, or lethal force in police action, or torture, or political assassination, or anything similar, even discounting the killing of animals involved in human life5. This really falls down when taken in context of other beliefs of the people who use it as an argument, because it’s so inconsistent with many pro-life values, it’s likely just a stand-in for the second idea.

The other idea sometimes comes bundled together with a personal restriction, a form that’s probably more viable than a personal restriction alone. In its most extreme form, it goes like this: Something about the human species makes us special, and anything concieved with our DNA has a right to life from conception. This is not usually an argument to the right to life from sentience or personhood, as these concepts are both very debatable in how early they apply to infants, fetuses, zygotes, etc… Neither is it an argument from human potential- this has its own problems. This restriction is usually about any human life being sacred, and it seems to have roots in an anthropocentric6 thought- it seems to be used as a justification that not only can humans not be killed, but that anything that prevents the proliferation of the human species is morally wrong. This sort of thought has always been problematic to me, and my opposition to it led to a lot of my current thoughts and beliefs- my criticism of “strong” catholicism, my Green beliefs about sustainable population, the view that the human race is just a particularly smart type of animal, and so on. This type of thought is fundamentally incompatible with modern life: it incites wistful denial of global warming7, it opposes birth control and sexual liberation, and it’s highly vulnerable to tribalism in its extreme form: “only people like me are really people!”
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