Christopher Kaczor, author of The Ethics of Abortion, has an interesting post at First Things (from 2011) explaining how two human beings could have an equal right to life, yet the killing of one could be a worse wrong than the killing of the other. (See his post for the six reasons he lists that “justify the common moral intuition that late abortion is worse than early abortion, without justifying early abortion and without denying human equality.”)
His post is written in response to those who argue that a gradualist view of the right to life explains why, for example, killing an adult human is a greater moral wrong than killing a human in the womb. (The gradualist view is the idea that one attains the right to life when one reaches the proper level of development, age, location outside the womb, etc.) Responding to the argument comparing the right to life to other rights like the right to vote (which we don’t have until we reach a particular age), he says:
We should reject, for example, the analogy between the gradual development of a right to life and the gradual attainment of other rights. There is a radical difference between the right to life and the rights to vote or drive or hold public office. Those rights can be enjoyed only by those who can meet the corresponding responsibilities. Five-year-olds have no right to drive, because they cannot meet the responsibilities of drivers. But the right to life does not have any corresponding responsibilities, and so it may be enjoyed by those who cannot discharge any duties, like children before the age of reason or mentally handicapped adults. Although some rights are attained gradually as the person matures, the right to life is not one of them.
The difference between positive and negative rights comes into play here. A positive right (the right to be provided with or have access to something—a right that is created by the government, man-made and dependent on time and place) can be tied to a responsibility that justifies that right. A negative right, on the other hand, is a right to not have something we already possess taken away. The right to life is not a positive right promising the provision of something by the government; it’s a negative right preventing the government (or anyone else) from taking away what is already ours.
As further evidence of the absurdity of the gradualist view, Kaczor offers this scenario:
In addition, some human beings in utero are more physiologically developed than some human beings after birth. Compare a pregnancy that continues two weeks past the due date to a baby born prematurely at twenty-five weeks. The more physiologically developed human being remains within the uterus; the less physiologically developed human being is found outside his or her mother in the nursery. If the gradualist view were true, killing a baby born at twenty-five weeks would be more justifiable than aborting one at forty-two weeks’ gestation. No one thinks this, not even the gradualists.
Read the rest of “Equal Rights, Unequal Wrongs.”