The Catholic Thing
The First Freedom and the First Right Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Thursday, 29 October 2009

The government of France has fined the Church of Scientology almost a million dollars for the regular practice of their “religion,” which France says is not a religion at all but a criminal fraud. The government of France is very close to outlawing Scientology altogether.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference once more is intending to advance its now annual U.N. resolution calling for a ban on the “defamation of religion.” It used to be a ban only on the defamation of Islam, but was expanded to include other religions in order to gather more support, which it has annually received in the U.N. General Assembly.

Every day there are reports of people being discriminated against for their religious beliefs. Churches are burned. People are murdered or imprisoned for their faith. It is illegal to convert from Islam in many countries, under penalty of death. A young American woman converted to Christianity here in the United States and she has had to ask the courts to protect her from her family.

In its annual report a few years ago, Freedom House – one of the premiere monitors of human rights worldwide – showed that you could walk from the western coast of Africa all the way to the east coast of China and never once set foot in a country that practices religious freedom. Religious freedom is a deplorable state worldwide.

This situation is not just one problem among many. Man has an obligation under natural law to seek the truth and because of this he has a human right to seek that truth, as almost all people in every age have done, in the religious context. Freedom of religion is therefore the first freedom. It is arguably far more important than political self-determination, freedom of the press, or any other freedom.

That freedom also matters to notions of rights. In the field of humanitarian and human rights work, there are many vineyards. Some work to feed the poor, aid the sick and dying. Others work on freeing prisoners held unjustly. Others work on issues of democracy, voting rights, governmental transparency. And others work on freedom of religion. People from all across the political spectrum are engaged in one or more of these issues and good for them. All of these questions fit neatly and perfectly into the category of basic human rights and the people who work to defend those rights are honored and applauded – and rightly so.

But what is missing in the usual understanding of human rights, both right and left, is that there in one right that is higher and more fundamental than all the rest. It is one that does not bring honor and praise and profiles in the New York Times. It is the right that eclipses them all: the right to life.

A few days ago a very good man from a prestigious Washington think-tank said that in the field of human rights there ought to be an organization comprised only of democracies that uphold human rights. Such an organization would exclude those countries that do not. Of course, he is thinking of the right to vote, to assemble, to worship, and all the generally recognized categories that the United States upholds and that Muslim states violate.

Think about this, though. The human-rights-loving Western countries account for the deliberate killing of millions of children annually. The United States alone accounts for the deliberate killing of 1.2 million children a year. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, America has the highest abortion rate in the Western world. Some will counter that these people are not killed under orders or direction from governments. True enough. They are private killings. But they are private killings that are protected by governments. The governments have said not only will we not protect these children; we will protect your right to kill them.

Which is the greater violator of human rights, the government that does not allow women to drive, makes them dress in head-to-toe coverings, does not allow them to vote, jails dissenters, controls the press, and all the rest? Or the government that allows and protects the private killing of millions of children?

I am not making excuses for thuggish states that violate the important human rights of religious freedom, political self-determination, and the usual list of basic human rights. What I am saying is there is something wrong in the human rights field – even the parts patrolled by conservatives – that ignores the deliberate killing of human beings and in fact does not even recognize this as a human rights violation.

Where religious freedom is the first freedom, the right to life is the first right. It is higher than all the rest because the right to life gives everyone at least a running and breathing chance at all the other rights and freedom. The dead do not have that opportunity. The dead do not have rights.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (12)Add Comment
Inalienable Right!
written by Willie, October 30, 2009
The right to life is a hallmark of our becoming a nation. The present denial of that right by this government seems to be a contradiction. If the government is in the business of defining personhood one must wonder where that right came from. If the human fetus is not a person then what is it? If the government continues to define personhood in various states of existence, we may someday be in trouble, The rights of the mentally compromised are surely to be denied next. Is this tyranny?
Thou shalt not kill
written by Joseph, October 30, 2009
Wading through Augustine's City of God, I note that the Bishop of Hippo makes exceptions for murder, such as soldiers acting under authority and "special" divine messages, i.e. Abraham about to slay his son on God's command. Abortion is clearly murder, as the innocent are the victims; but where the argument gets muddy is in the case of the "guilty," or those whom authorities decide are deserving of death.

Some would argue that freedom FROM religion is just as important as freedom OF.
written by Austn Ruse, October 30, 2009

Certainly freedom from religious compulsion is a part of religious freedom. The Church recognizes that. This is one of the great developments of Vatican II.
Nor voices, nor sex
written by Howie, October 30, 2009
"The dead do not have rights"...because the dead do not have voices. The living, who speak for the dead are just a few of the voices in the crowd, the few whose views are necessarily eschewed by the crowd once it deems them to be at cross-purposes with the will of itself. The will of this age, as expressed by the living is, apparently, sex unbridled from its procreative purpose. The dead do not have rights, nor voices, nor sex. The living do. For a while, anyway. God help us.
written by Austin Ruse, October 30, 2009

Having a voice is not the prerequisite for having rights. In fact, someone in a coma who has no voice and no way to communicate certainly has rights. The dead do not have rights because they do not have obligations.
To Austin Ruse
written by Willie, October 30, 2009
Unless the obligation of the comatose person or fetus is to live, would you tell me what obligations a comatose person or a fetus would have as opposed to a dead person and thus enabling rights. I am a bit confused with the meaning of obligation as it relates to one's rights.
written by Austin Ruse, October 30, 2009
That is a very good question....and i dont have a very good answer except that we do not know much about the interior lives of the comatose except that one exists and perhaps mixed deep inside there are obligations that are met or not met. Perhaps, the obligation to go on living.

Moreover, I suspect i am wrong is asserting that the only reason the dead do not have rights is becuase they do not have obligations. That was too glib.
Why People Have Rights
written by Chris, October 31, 2009
The founders of the United States communicated to us why people have rights...because those rights "are endowed by their Creator'.

Because of God, even the dead still have rights...among these: the right to have their legal wills executed as they directed in life, the right not to be defamed, the right not to be falsely accused, etc.
written by Austin Ruse, October 31, 2009

I think you have succumbed to what Mary Ann Glendon called "rights talk". And this thread, sadly, has veered off of the purpose of my column which is considering why the unborn are not considered rights bearing creatures by the human rights establishment of both left and right.
Freedom and Constitution
written by Bill, November 01, 2009
When a person's rights not to follow any faith encroach on the rights of the faithful to practice theirs, then the first amendment has been violated. When religious symbols are forcibly removed or prohibited from public display, then the concept of religious freedom has become a mockery. When the U.S. Constitution is trampled--as it has been for decades--in the name of the freedom of a few cranks and radicals, then liberty itself is gone, and our country in jeopardy.
Black and White
written by Patrick, November 03, 2009
It's all so black and white for you isn't it? What if your daughter or wife was raped and wanted an abortion. Do you have the right to keep her from making that decision. What if keeping a pregnancy meant she would die? Now how come I never hear people of your ilk talking about the injustices of 100,000 Iraqii deaths and 400 dead Americans for an unjust war based on lies but fought by all sorts of so called Christians? How about all the people of "faith" that are selling alcohol &tobacco?
written by Austin Ruse, November 03, 2009
Of course, rape is always held out as the hard case. Ok, you can have abortion for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. That would reduce abortions in America from 1.2 millon to about 20,000.

Of course, then we would work to close that loophole, too.

What would I do if it were my daughter? I would help her deal with the rape and to welcome the new life into the world, not kill the baby which would only further wound my daughter.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author