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Does the Evolution of “Human Rights” Drive Modern Abortion Politics?

Does the Evolution of “Human Rights” Drive Modern Abortion Politics? January 6, 2019

As I’ve written about before, many conservative thinkers are not fond of expansive arguments from “human rights.” For one thing, the ongoing proliferation of the claims that count as appeals to “human rights” undermines the principle that human rights are grounded in (created) human nature: how, after all, can a “right to high-speed internet” possibly be deemed a “universal right”? (Was everyone prior to 2005 simply suffering in benighted oppression?) Some press the argument further: a few of today’s sharper conservative voices point to Western classical liberalism’s affirmation and adjudication of individual rights-claims as an original flaw in the system, leading to an inability to think in terms of the “common good” and a collapse of politics into total moral incoherence.

Though it doesn’t situate itself as such, Andrew R. Lewis’s fascinating book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, is an essential contribution to that conversation. Lewis’s book advances two primary lines of argument: (1) abortion has increasingly become the driving factor informing what policy positions conservative Christians will accept in the political sphere; and (2) conservative Christians have, in the last 50 years, increasingly articulated moral appeals by way of the “liberal” language of human rights. To my mind, the second is by far the more interesting finding: Lewis presents extensive survey data demonstrating that the arguments that conservative Christians find most appealing and persuasive are those framed in the terms of human rights. Just to name one example, once this rhetorical shift is made, traditional talk of living in accordance with God’s Law becomes the right to free exercise of religion.

How does this look in practice? Lewis argues that conservative Christians have progressed through several stages in their understanding of the abortion issue as an issue that implicates human rights: rights learning (the theoretical framing of a belief—here, the moral conviction that abortion takes an innocent human life—in the terms of human rights), rights claiming (the assertion of the belief, framed asa rights-claim, in the public sphere), and rights extension (the extrapolation of pro-life principles into political contexts beyond the abortion debate).

Lewis sees this trend as a largely positive one. In his telling, casting the abortion debate in terms of rights allows for fruitful public engagement between pro-life and pro-choice perspectives, and lays the groundwork for a pro-life ethic to be extended to migrants, death row inmates, and so forth. The logic of rights extension, per Lewis, will lead in this direction.

Liberalism’s conservative critics, to be sure, are less sanguine about the stability of this regime. Inevitably, rival rights-claims must be adjudicated—which involves an exercise of power rooted in some moral judgment about society’s best interests. For instance, most Western tribunals adjudicating competing human rights claims rely on a “proportionality” framework that strives to balance the interests involved—as opposed to the rights-as-trumps framework that permeates American constitutional law. In short, the supposedly “neutral” language of human rights simply ends up masking the political decisions being made.

In reflecting on Lewis’s book, I found myself reminded of the central argument from R.R. Reno’s recent volume Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West. A crucial thesis of Reno’s book is that the horror of World War II shook the confidence of Western societies in their willingness to assert claims to absolute truth. Both of the murderous ideologies that claimed millions of lives in the 20th—fascism on the right, and communism on the left—rested on substantive theoretical ideas about first philosophical principles, the destiny of history, and the duties of human beings. At the risk of oversimplifying, for the fascists, the homeland or the Volk was entitled to absolute allegiance; for the communists, the revolutionary struggle was all. Following the collapse of fascism and the ascent of communism, Western regimes felt a need to define themselves according to purportedly “neutral” principles that would reduce the possibility of ideological violence. The contemporary discourse of “human rights,” with its seeming objectivity, was one result.

This has interesting ramifications for Lewis’s argument—and for the arguments made by liberalism’s conservative opponents. What Reno’s historical analysis suggests—and what Lewis’s data bears out—is that the salience of appeals to “human rights” dramatically increased in the postwar period. That, in turn, implies that there may be a significant discontinuity between the theoretical underpinnings of the rights-language deployed at the American founding—the dawn of classical liberalism—and the rights-language used in contemporary political life.

Perhaps the distinction can be drawn along the following lines. The first type of rights-language—think “life, liberty, property”—speaks to aspects of the human person and human relationships that are, by nature, foundational to human flourishing. The second type of rights-language—think “right to broadband”—is simply a way of lending moral force to contingent political claims. The seeming interminability of modern arguments over human rights is a feature, not a bug: since by design the second type of rights-language operates as a substitute for arguments from nature or other first principles, any argument necessarily goes in circles as soon as someone invokes “human rights.” And what better way to avert the threat of violent ideologies like fascism and communism?

This transformation of rights-language was not an inevitable rupture. The historical record suggests that early liberalism was capable of acknowledging a “thick” moral backdrop of the relationships between, and hierarchy governing, the rights-claims that could be asserted by individuals. For example, on this account the right to free speech was not unqualified: the community could properly police libel, blasphemy, and obscenity without falling into moral error.

The picture that emerges is quite different from the caricature of liberalism as “doomed from the start” that some conservative thinkers are currently advancing. It would appear that early on, rights-claims did not take the form of self-sufficient secular morality that they do today—which would help explain why political appeals weren’t regularly justified in terms of “rights.” At the very least, all of this suggests that a finer-grained account of liberalism—one that accounts for the full complexity of the historical record—is required.

Beyond this particular theme, The Rights Turn opens up a number of interesting avenues for further research. Perhaps unavoidably, Lewis’s sociological analysis is a bit incomplete: The Rights Turn largely avoids speculating about why abortion became such a wedge issue (for a more thorough treatment of the topic, see Daniel K. Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade). The book is also silent about what seems to me to be one of the most obvious philosophical questions regarding rights extension: whether pro-life principles have any bearing on the relationship between human beings and nonhuman animals.

But perhaps those are research questions for another day. As it stands, The Rights Turn is a compelling and well-crafted contribution to both the history of American abortion politics and the history of human rights discourse more broadly, and it’s well worth reading.


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