While traveling recently, I saw a button on someone’s backpack that proclaimed, “My body, my choice.” The allusion was clear, and I pondered how much importance our society places on choice. We all make choices, but is it an absolute value by which to measure everything else? Can there be choice without responsibility? Equally striking was the word “my,” carrying with it the idea that choice is a private possession, that one person can make choices in isolation. Should my choices matter only to me – even if another body is dependent on mine?
The individualism implied in this slogan has driven the abortion debate in endless circles. The tendency on both sides to frame their arguments almost exclusively in terms of individual rights has led to something of a stalemate in the public square: a woman’s right to choose comes up against a child’s right to live. Individuals do of course have genuine rights that must be respected, but to move beyond the current dead ends, something more is needed. The individual does not exist in isolation, but rather in relation to and as part of community and society. Rights do not exist in isolation, but rather they relate to certain values.
Considering values helps to shed light on the meaning of rights. We can affirm a number of positive goods at once, but also insist that these goods be rightly prioritized. Nobody is likely to deny that life is a good, and, when kept in healthy perspective, so is choice.
But when anyone’s choice is deemed more valuable than anyone’s life, the priority of values is out of order. When a woman’s choice not to be pregnant trumps the life of her child, when parents’ choices endanger their children either before or after they are born, when a disturbed man’s choice to stockpile an armory results in the death of innocents, when someone’s choice to die solely on their own terms becomes more precious to them than life itself – in all of these cases, choice has been made an idol, at a grave human cost.
When understood in relation to what is most valuable, rights can bring real depth to the conversation. For instance, Catholics believe that a person’s right to life neither begins nor ends at birth but extends throughout one’s natural life. And since this right is rooted in the dignity we all share as bearers of the image of God, it is bigger than the right to simply remain alive. This informs how we should treat everyone, especially those whose human dignity is most often disregarded: the unborn, the poor, immigrants, the imprisoned, the ill and the disabled. To see life as a value and a right is to recognize that all people deserve to be treated with dignity.
When human dignity, or even life itself, is subordinated to individual choice, it often leads to what Blessed John Paul II famously termed the “culture of death.” If we’re to find a cure for this social ill, it requires a recognition that human beings are made to live interdependently. Our choices are not ours alone: they affect others beyond ourselves. And no choice is of greater value than any life.
For the week of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this blog is featuring guest posts by Catholic bloggers who participated in the November 2012 USCCB event, "An Encounter with Social Media: Bishops and Bloggers Dialogue."