The first and foremost human right is the right to life. If we do not acknowledge and defend this right above all others, then there are no others…because without human life, there are no human (or civil) rights. No just government can exist that does not first acknowledge that human beings have the right to live. Any government that fails to acknowledge this is inherently unjust.
No government, business, association, or person has the authority to take the life of any human being, regardless of their age, level of development, healthiness, or usefulness.
Furthermore, because the right to life is the first right, it takes precedence over all other rights when there is a conflict of rights. Liberty and property rights are insufficient justification for the taking of any human life. Only a direct conflict between two persons’ rights to life can justify the taking of life.
What Is Human Life?
One popular definition [of life] is that organisms are open systems that maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, have a life cycle, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, reproduce and evolve.“Life,” Wikipedia, retrieved on March 28, 2019
This is an imperfect definition, but it is as good as we are likely to get. Note that life is not defined by an organism’s age or level of development, by how healthy or unhealthy it is, or by how useful it might be to other members of its species. It is defined by the presence of metabolism, growth, and change.
For millennia, brilliant thinkers have debated when human life begins and ends. These can be very difficult philosophical questions. Philosophers, theologians, and jurists have come to different conclusions at different times. For hundreds of years, many religious thinkers — including those leading my own Roman Catholic Church — have claimed that life begins at conception. For example:
Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2270
But we are a legally secular society (as we should be, in accordance with individuals’ rights to religion and conscience, which are included under the right to liberty). No religious group has the right to impose its moral beliefs upon others. So the fact that the Roman Catholic Church, or any other church, believes that life begins at conception is not in and of itself a reason to adopt that definition under the law.
And so, to determine policy we must turn to science, and to what we know about early human development. We know, for example, that the fertilized egg cell contains the fused DNA of the mother and father…a DNA pattern that is unique and that will continue to guide that person’s physical development through the rest of their life, no matter how short or long it may be. We know that this new person’s body very quickly begins to divide and grow, relying upon his or her mother’s sustenance, yes, but still as an individual following his or her own genetic code. In other words, we can now confirm irrefutably, without resorting to faith or theology, that human life begins at conception.
So the question becomes one not about what human life is, but about what human lives deserve protection. To determine that, we must turn to the philosophical question of where human rights come from. And the answer is that they are endowed upon each individual human being at creation by either God, nature, or evolution. In other words, human rights begin when human life does…at conception.
What About Self Defense?
Every human being has the right to defend his or her rights to life, liberty, and property, and this right includes a right to use appropriate force when necessary.
Because of the hierarchy of the three human rights, it is not acceptable to use deadly force to defend liberty or property. However, deadly force can be used when necessary to defend your own life or the lives of others. When two people’s rights to life are in direct conflict, one life can be taken…but only as a last resort.
When an aggressor threatens the life of other human beings, those who are threatened have the right to defend their own lives, and may use deadly force to repel the attack. The aggressor has forfeited his right to life by making the choice to directly threaten others’ rights to life.
What About Capital Punishment?
The proper purpose of capital punishment — the death penalty — is to defend the lives of innocent members of society.
In ancient times, before the development of modern justice and prison systems, taking the life of a murderer was often the only way to ensure the safety of the society from that murderer in the future. In those times and places, it could be understood as a form of legitimate self defense. The murderer’s right to life was in direct conflict with everybody else’s right to life, and so the murderer’s right was forfeited.
But these are not ancient times. Society is sufficiently protected from murderers by their permanent imprisonment. The small risk of escape is not enough to override this calculation. Therefore, the right to life does now extend to convicted murderers, and capital punishment must be recognized as a human rights violation in the United States.
What About Suicide and Euthanasia?
The topic of suicide and euthanasia is perhaps the most ambiguous under the natural law understanding of the right to life.
With most rights — say, the right to free speech — an individual may choose to voluntarily forfeit that right. I may choose not to speak. I may choose to enter into a contract limiting my right to speak on a specific subject (e.g., a non-disclosure agreement). If we apply the same rules that we apply to the other human rights, that would seem to imply that individuals may forfeit their own right to life by free, personal choice.
My moral and religious convictions on this subject are in accord with those of the Catholic Church — that suicide and euthanasia are not morally acceptable. Our life is ultimately owned not by each of us individually, but by God. But this view is not an acceptable basis for civil law in a free society, where each individual has their own right to religion and conscience, unless it is supported by either secular science or the secular form of natural law philosophy (in which the natural law emerges from nature or evolution, not from God).
The strongest argument in favor of prohibiting suicide and euthanasia is the argument that taking one’s own life fully terminates a human right, and that doing this is impermissible under natural law regardless of its source. Continuing with our free speech example, although I can agree to certain restrictions on my free speech rights, and I can choose not to speak, I cannot choose to permanently forfeit my free speech rights in their entirety.
Even if I chose to never speak again, I would still retain the right to speak. But if I chose to kill myself, I would not still retain my right to life, or (for that matter) any other rights. My human rights would terminate when my human life terminates.
Like I said, this is a difficult subject. This is one of the areas where natural law leaves some gray area. It would be difficult to justify any federal intervention into the states’ suicide and euthanasia laws on a human rights basis…although there remain good public policy reasons for the states to maintain or reestablish their prohibitions.
Even without a solid natural law basis for a national prohibition, the advocacy by socialist and leftist politicians for suicide and euthanasia is stunningly anti-humanist. And in places where euthanasia has been legalized (both in the U.S. and abroad), there are far too many examples of coercion. It is also clear that euthanasia must not be made available to children, who lack the capacity to make this kind of decision for themselves.
What About Abortion?
As explained above, life begins at conception. Furthermore, given the hierarchy of the human rights, the right to life takes precedence over the rights to liberty and property. This means that the right of a woman to liberty over her body, though a true and defensible right, does not supersede the right of the child in her womb to live.
This is not a religious belief, nor does it impose religious beliefs upon others. It is a simple consequence of the existence of the three human rights under natural law, which is the basis of all just governments and societies. The primary purpose of government is to defend the human rights. Any government that permits (or worse, advocates) abortion, and fails to prosecute those who procure or provide them, is an unjust government that is failing to uphold its first and most important duty.
This applies even in cases of rape. Obviously governments should capture, prosecute, and punish rapists to the full extent permitted under the law…but it cannot permit such a horrific crime against humanity to be compounded with even more gruesome crimes against humanity. Every human being has the right to live, even if he or she was created in an inexcusable act of violence. Innocent people cannot be punished for crimes committed by others.
Only in cases where pregnancy poses a direct threat against the life of the mother could abortion possibly be permissible, because in that case there is a direct conflict between two persons’ rights to life. In these cases, abortion may be a regrettable necessity. Even in these cases, doctors are obligated under natural law to make their best attempt to save both lives if possible.
What About War?
War is never a good, but it is sometimes a necessity.
Because wars result in the loss of life, liberty, and property, they should be avoided whenever possible. The duty of just governments is to defend the human rights of those under its authority, but governments also have a duty not to intentionally undermine the human rights of any peoples outside of its authority. Because these are fundamental human rights, they are shared by all people, and a just government never seeks to undermine them.
Decisions about war must be informed by the just war theory, which was most clearly defined by Saint Thomas Aquinas. It is rooted in natural law and is not an exclusively religious philosophy, even though its best expression is located in a Catholic theological document:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged…. Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault…. Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil….Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (Secunda Secundæ Partis), Question 40, Article 1, (reformatted excerpts)
In other words, a just war must be launched by a legitimate, just government, must have a just cause rooted in some harmful or belligerent action, and must be motivated by doing good and advancing human rights in the long run.
Even in cases where war is justified under these criteria, governments have a duty to act ethically in war. They must avoid the intentional targeting of noncombatants, must adhere to the laws of war, must avoid any unnecessary harms, must assist in the process of recovery after the war ends, and must always work to advance the cause of human rights.