Religion and the Right to Life
As the subtitle of this Blog points out, my purpose is mainly to argue for the right to die, and to oppose the religious obstruction of this right. Christians argue, however, that had it not been for the Christian belief that God is love, we would not be speaking about rights at all. In his book, Atheist Delusions, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart argues that “‘memes’ like ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ may not indefinitely continue replicating themselves once the Christian ‘infinite value of every life’ meme has died out.” (Kindle ed., Loc. 3311)
Is this true? Does the meme for human rights have a religious origin? And, were religion to disappear, would human rights disappear along with it? Do human rights depend upon the idea of the infinite value of every life? What, if it comes to that, does it mean to speak of every life as infinitely valuable? What practical consequences follow from the idea that every life has infinite value?
Here are a couple of the consequences. Since every life — surely Hart meant every human life — is infinitely valuable, we cannot choose from amongst them. So, a human blastocyst has just as much right to live as a woman of thirty years, with all her plans and projects, hopes, fears, decisions, relationships, loves and likes, dislikes and preferences. The blastocyst is undoubtedly living human tissue, and has the potential, given the right conditions, to develop into a human being just like the woman in whose womb it is embedded. It has, therefore, human rights, in Hart’s terms, and, given that most rights do not apply to it, it has the primary human right, the right to life. And since we cannot choose from amongst lives, which shall live and which shall die, a blastocyst’s life is as valuable as the thirty-year old woman who bears it.
The same applies, apparently, at the other end of life. Let’s take the case of Annie, described in detail in Julia Lawton’s book, The Dying Process. Since the description is several pages long, I will just touch on the main points.
Annie was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had surgery, but the cancer returned, and spread to the pelvic wall. At first Annie was able to deal with the situation at home, though she developed severe oedema in both her legs and eventually could not leave her bed. After receiving treatment for the oedema, Annie was able at least to go to the bathroom, but the cancer itself was no longer treatable, and her condition continued to deteriorate in ways that precipitated her admission to a hospice. Lawton’s description of her condition at that time notes that Annie
… developed a recto-vaginal fistula, which meant that her jurine and faeces started coming out through the same passageway. (125)
Faecal leakage led to her admission to the hospice. Originally she did not want to be admitted, and elicited a promise from her family that they would do everything they could to help her stay at home. Yet she could see the consequences for her husband, who was becoming exhausted. ‘I could see him crumbling in front of me,’ she said. Also, she did not have enough privacy at home to deal with her personal hygiene, which she found embarrassing and degrading.
After a short period in the hospice, Annie’s condition continued to deteriorate. While she seemed cheerful by day, night duty nurses reported that she sobbed quietly to herself at night. After a short period during which she managed to care for herself, her fistula enlarged significantly, and she could no longer stand up without diarrhoea and urine pouring out of her body. Then she developed a bladder infection, and the smell of her urine penetrated into every nook and cranny of the hospice.
Annie was afraid that she would be discharged home where her loss of dignity would be aparent to her family, and the hospice resolved to keep her in the hospice till she died, even though there was pressure to free up her bed. But she continued to deteriorate. “She ‘rotted away below’, as the nurses put it.” (126) At the same time it became impossible to keep her clean. “On several occasions when the nurses came to attend to her, they found her covered to her shoulders in her own urine and excreta.” (loc. cit.)
Other patients at the hospice were distressed at Annie’s condition, and needed reassurance that their own deaths would not be as undignified as Annie’s was proving to be, but my question simply is this. What point does talking about the infinite value of human life make in a case like Annie’s? While there was no question of assisting Annie to die, since doing so would have been illegal, thinking in terms of Annie’s right to life seems almost obscene in the context. Of course, while no one should be killed without their informed consent, nor, even, in the worst circumstances, should they be placed under undue pressure to receive help to die more quickly, the language of human rights seems out of place in such a context, since the right to life also means the right to suffer degradation, humiliation and misery.
In both of the cases being considered here, the Roman Catholic Church would hold that the infinite value of human life demands that no intervention be made the intended outcome of which would be the death of human life. Even, in the first case, if the woman would die if her pregnancy continued, the infinite value of human life means that saving the woman’s life by killing the blastocyst, the embryo or the foetus is forbidden, and all her hopes and fears, plans, projects, relationships, dreams and expectations should die with her, while the thing that will kill her would lose none of these things if aborted, since it’s life, as a human person, has not begun, and if both mother and foetus would die anyway, were the pregnancy to continue, will never begin.
But suppose Annie had known that asking for and receiving help to die was not illegal. Suppose that, over the years, this possibility was always there in the back of her mind, would her infinite value as a human life dictate that she should not seek to escape the suffering, the degradation, the constant humiliation that she experienced as she died? Apparently so. But, we must ask, what kind of a right is this that forces people to suffer intolerable misery and humiliation before they die?
Clearly, when David Bentley Hart claims that human rights are a religious invention — and that they depend in some sense on the theological premise that God is love and that every human being is created in the image of God — presumably this is because he thinks that they are a benefit. But, in the two cases considered here, what benefit is conferred by the right to life?
I do not intend to settle the dispute about the origin of human rights, though I do think that finding their source in religion is fraught with great difficulty. In light of widespread offences against human rights defacing the history of most religions, it is difficult to see that the concept of human rights was implicit in religious anthropology all along. However, if we confine ourselves to the two situations that I have briefly sketched, the religious application of the idea of human rights to those situations seems deeply to compromise what we intuitively feel are some of the benefits of claiming to possess rights, and, in particular, the right to life. In both situations the religious application of human rights principles seems to me to produce wrong outcomes, and this suggests, to me, anyway, that human rights must originate somewhere else.
What seems to be wrong is precisely what religion contributes to the two situations, for religion, in upholding the right to life, denies both to the pregnant woman, and to the dying woman, the right to choose. In other words, the infinite value of life, as Christians understand this value, seems to require that this right be imposed on people who otherwise might reasonably have chosen differently. In the case of the abortion performed in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, the ACLU letter regarding the abortion case at St. Joseph’s states that “the dioceses cannot be permitted to dictate who lives and who dies in Catholic-owned hosptials.”
But this is precisely what the supposed ‘infinite value of human life’ seems to require in the kind of situation that is in question. It is conceivable that a woman might die in order to save her unborn child’s life, but it is difficult to imagine a woman willingly dying when there is no chance that a life will be saved by means of her sacrifice. Thus, if the right to life demands that both the woman and the foetus die, the solution to the conflict of rights must be imposed by a power that respects rules more than life. In the same way it seems that Annie, had she wanted help to die because of the humiliation and distress of her dying, would have to be forced to stay alive, by refusing to accede to her request. But, as Montaigne said, “Living is slavery if the freedom to die is wanting.” Is this then what religiously based human rights theory comes to in the end?
To return to the beginning and David Bentley Hart. Let’s suppose for a moment that Hart is corrrect, and it turns out that a strong historical case could be made that the source of human rights language can be traced back to religious ideas having to do with God’s love, and the creation of human beings in God’s image. Would it follow that the language of human rights is simply parasitic upon religious language, and that, if religious language were to undergo increasing marginalisation, human rights would be marginalised too? I see no reason to believe this true. Indeed, if rights language originates in religious beliefs about God and creation, it seems clear that it has now taken on a life of its own, and can no longer be subject to religious constraints. On the face of it, these constraints seem to contradict what we have come to mean by speaking about human rights, and it seemed that the continued application of religious norms to human rights would result, not only in violation of human rights, but in a violation so egregious that the very concept of human rights itself would be under threat.