The First Freedom and the First Right

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.

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Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.