What Makes a Right “Right”?


At the nascency of this article, it was the eve of one of the most lambasted and vilified Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century: the infamous Roe v. Wade. On that night, the author took pause to listen to the snippets of conversation that happened into his hearing: “Hey, are you going on the March?” “See you when I get back from D.C.!” “I’ve got enough packed for two-and-a-half days.” Students across the Franciscan campus were preparing for their annual sojourn to the nation’s capital, a trip ostensibly taken to protest the afore-mentioned court case and subsequent ruling. However, from a wide perspective, an observer might say that these students were exercising their individual rights, specifically the rights to assembly and speech.

It is here – with the introduction of individual rights – that the questions concerning individual rights tend to get muddled. “How can you say that?,” cries an angered reading population. “Abortion is an intrinsically-wrong action! There’s nothing confusing about that.” To this outraged crowd, there is a simple response: the morality of abortion is not the present concern of this article. Rather, it is the rightness of favoring certain individual rights above others that must be investigated. At face value, this certainly seems like a foolish question to ask. The right to life seems to trump, in a moral sense, all other rights. But should it? To be blunt, the right to life is a right that has largely been championed by a conservative base; for liberals, this right has been countered by “women’s rights”: privacy, bodily integrity and reproductive rights. Now, to pose a question within this new framework: why should one politicized right be favored over another?

We are now here concerned with the morality of the acts associated with each of the above so-called rights; the scope of this investigation is instead why one right deserves to command more institutional respect than another. To move this discussion into less abstract terms, consider the following examples: this past November, Brittany Maynard, a twenty-nine-year-old with a terminal brain tumor, chose to end her life through Oregon’s allowance for assisted suicide. Those in favor of a right to life decried this decision, claiming that she had no right to end her life. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Maynard’s actions were praised as a courageous invocation of the right to die. The problem is apparent: these rights are diametrically opposed. Turning to another example: in the case of an abortion, those in favor of a right to life state that a woman has no right over her child, whereas those in favor of a right to bodily integrity state that a woman has a right to do with her own body as she pleases. Once again, there are conflicting claims to conflicting rights.

How can this problem be solved? Quite frankly, it probably cannot. This previous semester, a prominent Catholic politician visited the Franciscan campus to preview an upcoming movie of his. Following the movie, the author posed to this political figure a question regarding the seemingly dynamic nature of rights in America. To preface his answer, this figure flatly intoned that there are no absolute rights. This is the origin of all the ambiguities we have encountered in regards to rights. It is extremely simple: America has abandoned the concept of absolute rights. This allows for all sorts of interests groups to bolster their positions with this right or that right. It also allows for any single right to be treated as limited, such as, say, the right to life. Thus, it can be said that those who claim a right to life must eventually yield to those who deny it, as we no longer recognize absolute rights. Just as those who marched in D.C. were limited in where they could go and what they could say, so also are all of our rights limited, even those some might wish to claim as most fundamental and most justly due.

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