The Right to Life and Human Dignity

Leon R. Kass
Hertog Fellow
Leon R. Kass, M.D.
Issues of individual rights tend to stand at the very center of legal disputes and moral debates in the United States. This is no accident, for "rights talk" is as American as apple pie. The moral bedrock of our republic is, as the Declaration of Independence proclaims, the self-evident truth that all men are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights, and, further, that securing these rights--to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness--for all human beings is the primary purpose of government. It is impossible to exaggerate the blessings that have come, both to us and to the world, from this liberal philosophical vision and its embodiment in our democratic political institutions.

Yet the dominance of rights talk in American moral discourse also leaves us impoverished in our efforts to understand and to protect what is humanly at stake in the dawning age of biotechnology. More than ever, armed with newfangled powers to alter body and mind, we can freely enjoy our rights and cheerfully use our freedoms in ways that degrade and dehumanize us. For example, by exercising our "right to reproduce," or our "right to do scientific research," free of any legal interference or moral objection, we have embraced surrogate motherhood, cloning, the buying and selling of egg and sperm, embryo farming, the creation of man-animal chimeras, and even extra-corporeal gestation. Pursuing the right to a longer life and an ageless body turns out to be perfectly compatible with creating human life solely for experimentation, establishing organ markets for transplantation, and freezing corpses for possible later reanimation. And the right to practice happiness as each sees fit turns out to be perfectly compatible with enhancing our performances with steroids and stimulants or gaining our pleasures and self-esteem from the pharmacist, completely severed from the human activities and attachments that are their proper ground. We Americans lack the language for expressing our concerns and disquiets over these and other threats to our humanity, precisely because we are so attuned to thinking only about our rights and our freedoms, and so little accustomed to speaking about our duties or our human dignity. In contrast, continental European discussion of these matters considers not only human rights but also and especially human dignity, in clear recognition that our humanity is not exhausted by our autonomy or by our ability to make claims or to exercise rights free of governmental interference. Certain forms of assisted reproduction are banned, human life cannot be created as a natural resource, and human body parts and human gametes are explicitly excluded from the domain of property and patentability. In contrast to Anglo-American ethics and law, European codes of ethics and specific legislation speak readily of preserving and protecting human dignity. . . .

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Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the Hertog Fellow at AEI.

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