Respect for the Dignity of Every Human Person: The First Pillar of a Decent Society

As our public debate coarsens and weakens, Public Discourse will continue to publish respectful, rigorous arguments. We will continue to stand up for the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of society.

For the past ten years, Public Discourse has been a consistent, unwavering advocate for the dignity of every human person. Throughout this essay, you’ll find hyperlinks to essays we have published on various topics related to human dignity over the past ten years. As these essays demonstrate, our editorial vision is built upon the truth that dignity is not determined by talent or ability, by size or state of development.

People matter even if they are not wanted, including the poor and marginalized, the elderly, the disabled, and unborn children. The answer to the question “who counts?” is “everyone.”

Beginning-of-Life Issues

Human dignity begins when human life begins, with the fusion of an egg and sperm in fertilization to create a new human being. Debates about human dignity begin with whether embryonic and fetal life is worthy of the same protections as more mature human life.

In Public Discourse’s early years, this was manifest in arguments over stem-cell research. George W. Bush’s compromise position neither prohibited nor promoted embryo-destructive research. Barack Obama changed this course, funding and advocating such research, even as alternative sources of human of stem cells continued to develop. But it’s not only embryos, children at the very earliest stages of development, whose bodies have been used for research. At the end of the Obama presidency, the Center for Medical Progress challenged the profit that organizations such as Planned Parenthood make from the sale of fetal parts for research. These revelations led to nationwide calls for Congress to defund the organization. The debate has continued into the Trump administration, whose Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it will review all medical research involving fetal tissue.

American ethical debates depend primarily on empathy with others and preventing them from suffering harm. The more an embryo or fetus appears recognizably human and the more it is shown to suffer harm, the more likely we are to recognize it as human and prevent such harm. This explains why a woman casually discussing the sale of fetal limbs and organs would provoke more outrage than the quiet destruction of embryonic humans.

In the past decade, improvements in ultrasound technology have made the humanity of life in the womb more obvious and worthier of our empathy. The horrors of Kermit Gosnell exposed the lurid side of abortion clinics and the dangers abortion poses to women. Abortion rates have reached their lowest point since Roe v. Wade. Even pro-choice authors note the consequences of sex-selective abortion, which has led to a conspicuous dearth of girls in societies where women are less valued than men, especially under China’s one-child policy. And the rise of groups like the New Wave Feminists have led many to note that the pro-life movement is getting younger and more female—exactly the opposite of what its critics expected. The more the harms of abortion become visible, the more a consensus grows against unrestricted abortion, especially later in pregnancy.

Abortion and stem-cell research concern unwanted human life, but the desires for particular human life and particular medical treatments also drive contemporary concerns about human dignity. Popular infertility treatments involve the creation of many embryos for the sake of a desired child, leaving the embryos not chosen destroyed or in a frozen limbo. In the coming years, we are likely to see more attempts to use genetic modification to design children according to parents’ desires, not to mention new techniques for human cloning, with little pause for reflection on their ethics. The harms of the fertility industry are becoming more evident in other ways, too. Children conceived by anonymous reproductive donors have begun to speak out against the disconnect they feel from their biological parents. Others argue that third-party reproduction violates the rights of children to have a connection with their biological parents. Still more across the ideological spectrum have begun to expose the violence to women and children endemic in the surrogacy industry.

Euthanasia, Parental Rights, and the Role of Conscience in Healthcare

The injustices of the fertility industry point to deeper questions for medicine and bioethics that will only become more important in the coming years. Is medicine a service provided to consumers who have an unquestioned right to have their desires met, or is it an art aimed at the good of the health of the person?

This is a vital question in the debate over assisted suicide, which we can expect to see become more prevalent. That debate also asks whether human dignity depends on capacity and feelings. Can one be disabled and have dignity, or in pain and have dignity? European nations such as Belgium show how restrictions on assisted suicide loosen over time, or are simply not followed. This August, for instance, two children became the world’s youngest to be euthanized, at ages nine and eleven. Euthanasia endangers the disabled, those with mental illness, and other vulnerable members of society whose lives are deemed less worth living. It attacks the heart of the medical profession, which is the health and human flourishing of patients. In the coming years, we should expect advocates to press for its legalization in more states, and for its social consequences to become more evident where it has been adopted.

In a related vein, another trend to watch is the refusal of hospitals, backed by states, to provide treatment for patients over the objections of their caregivers. Notable examples include the cases of Alfie Evans and Charlie Gard in the UK. In light of this, scholars like Melissa Moschella have begun to advocate for rights of parental authority over children that the state must respect, since parents by nature have the responsibility of caring for their children.

We also see the converse happening when states demand that healthcare providers offer treatments that they cannot in good conscience perform. Many claim that medical providers’ conscientious objection should have no role to play in their willingness to perform medical procedures. They argue that doctors who refuse to perform surgeries or prescribe treatments that they deem unethical or ineffective should be forced to comply with a patient’s wishes. This began with objections to abortion and has become more prevalent in cases of sex-reassignment surgeries and hormonal therapies for teenagers and adults experiencing gender dysphoria. Here at Public Discourse, scholars have argued that a pluralistic society should seek alternative routes to public goods that do not violate conscientious beliefs, and that legislation is required to ensure that rights of conscience are not violated.

Religion and Public Life

Conscience protections have become contested in matters of religious liberty as well. We used to see more debate over the freedoms of religion and conscience in terms of statues of the Ten Commandments, prayers in civic settings, and what religious liberty looked like at the time of the Founding. Recent court cases over the HHS contraception mandate and Jack Phillips’s refusal to bake a same-sex wedding cake are a taste of conscience-protection and religious-liberty debates in the years to come.

The clash between dignitary harms and religious rights will become more intense as the “nones” continue to rise and religious convictions become less intelligible as deep-seated beliefs that must be respected. Yet religious convictions shape our understanding of who we are, the purpose and destiny of our lives, and how we ought to treat those around us. They guide our pursuit of the truth and our adherence to it when we find it. The freedom of religion and the freedom of conscience are therefore fundamental to the dignity of the human person.

Though not a confessional journal, Public Discourse has published a variety of thoughtful and important religious arguments, and we will continue to do so in the years to come. Two topics in this vein particularly stand out. The first is the nature of Islam, the place of Muslims in liberal western societies, and the place of Jews and other religious minorities in societies that are increasingly Islamic. Can we have an Islam that is respectful of rights and friendly to Jews and Christians, yet not eroded by cultural assimilation and progressive politics? How can other religious believers clarify misperceptions about Islam in their own communities and work together with Muslims toward common goals? Second, should religious believers, especially Catholics, work toward confessional states? Or should they support liberal regimes? As arguments about the benefits and viability of liberal society are likely to continue, as will arguments for and against integralism.

This makes the work we do at Public Discourse all the more vital. As our public debate coarsens and weakens, we will continue to publish respectful, rigorous arguments. We will continue to stand up for the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of society. We will continue to fight for the freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion, and to host debates on the place of religion in contemporary society. We hope you join us for them in the years ahead.

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