persons, places and things: Respect for life

Barb Arland-Fye

By Barb Arland-Fye

A letter writer in the local newspaper said a woman “has the right to a safe, legal abortion just as a man has the right to a vasectomy. This is a human rights issue.”

The letter writer had earlier stated that no one is pro-abortion; we need to work on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. But her observation comparing abortion to a vasectomy is dismaying. Apparently, she doesn’t believe an unborn child is human.

Her letter is worth pondering during this month of October, which is Respect Life Month. If abortion is a human rights issue, what implications does that have for a society where value is placed on intelligence, physical and mental fitness and the ability to be a productive member of the community?

Does the letter writer believe human rights belong only to those who she can see or identify with?


Are some individuals more deserving of human rights than others? Is that why an estimated 90 percent of all prenatal detections of Down syndrome end in abortion? Is that why our country maintains the death penalty in 35 states, the U.S. government and military?

Almost 20 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said:

“When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice.

“Instead the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a pall of shame over our society for years to come. We cannot let it continue.” 

But we have. Isn’t that a human rights issue?

Isn’t access to food, shelter, clothing and health care a human right as well? Of the 38 million people in Kenya, for example, 10 million are in need of food, according to a Catholic News Service article on Page 7 in this week’s Catholic Messenger.

On the same page is a story about a proposed clarification of Britain’s assisted suicide law, which British Catholic officials warn could erode respect for the value of human life.

Britain is pondering whether it should allow people to avoid prosecution for helping a terminally ill loved one to end his or her life. For the Catholic Church, protecting vulnerable people from becoming victims of euthanasia is all about human rights.  

Meanwhile, in our country the number of uninsured increased from 39.8 million in 2001 to 46.3 million in 2008, according to U.S. census figures.  Shouldn’t those 46.3 million have access to care that could help prevent illness or alleviate pain and suffering?  That seems to be a “no-brainer” when it comes to human rights.

But human rights seem to stop where selfishness begins.

In this week’s Catholic Messenger, Father Ron Rolheiser celebrates God’s abundance as an invitation to generosity.

The gifted theologian points out that we have a tendency to horde, fearing always that we won’t have enough and that we can’t afford to be generous. But he encourages us to follow God’s example of generosity. That seems to be a good stepping-off point for human rights.

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