CMDA's The Point

The Filter of Human Rights

October 29, 2020
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by Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics)

As the 2020 election draws near, I’ve been contemplating the underlying reasons some of my family members will likely vote differently than me in this election. They believe the core Christian doctrines and affirm the Bible as the Word of God. They passionately seek to follow after the Lord in all they do. Yet, when they cast their ballot this year, their choice for President will probably differ from mine. It isn’t that they disagree with me on the abhorrence of abortion or the importance of conscience rights. Factors not yet understood by me are causing them to support the alternate candidate. It seems we are viewing political issues through different filters. After musing on this question for several months, I’ve concluded that one of those filters is human rights.

The vast majority of these family members belong to a younger generation. Though raised in a Christian home, they have also grown up in a culture promoting an expansion of human rights. I’m not talking about fundamental human rights like the right to liberty and living free from exploitation. This generation grew up indoctrinated with newly invented rights such as the right to healthcare and a college education. I’ve always looked at these “rights” more as privileges to be earned rather than something to be expected from society. These younger family members seem to view the world through the lens of these rights, assigning them a priority far greater than my own. Their prioritization of these rights has influenced their interpretation of this election and the issues involved.

This view of rights differs from mine not only because it incorporates recently conceived human rights, but also because it emphasizes the rights of individuals. It is a “rights-based” approach to politics that interprets most, if not all, political issues through the filter of individual rights. This “rights-based” approach results in a more nuanced view regarding various political issues.

Take the example of abortion. Someone who prioritizes individual rights may view the act of abortion as wrong and even evil. However, this view will be tempered by the realization that abortion involves the expression of a woman’s right, something they value. Placing the individual’s right in opposition to the wrong of abortion creates varying degrees of dissonance and ambiguity toward abortion and its importance as a political issue. This ambiguity is reflected by the variety of opinions regarding abortion found within the American population. Notre Dame did a recent study of abortion attitudes in the U.S. and found that two out of three interviewees were somewhere between the pro-life and pro-abortion positions. In other words, they don’t see abortion as an absolute wrong or as an absolute right.

Another example is healthcare. Those who prioritize healthcare as an individual right will vote for the candidate universalizing healthcare with less concern for the impact that policy will have on society as a whole. The right to a college education may also receive greater priority than the resultant debt placed on society.

If I am correct that the prioritization of individual rights unduly influences these family members’ opinions, how should this view be countered? Individual rights do have their importance, but they should never become absolutized. A woman’s right to control her body should never be prioritized over the life within her womb. An individual’s right to receive a college education should never be prioritized over society’s economic health. In the parable that exemplifies how to love our neighbor, Jesus portrays the Good Samaritan as someone who gives up his rights to help a stranger. It was the priest and the Levite who maintained their rights yet failed to love their neighbor.

As Christians, we certainly possess individual rights. But the voluntary surrender of those rights to help others is a convincing demonstration of our faith. Jesus acknowledges this as He commands us to take up our cross and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). In this election season, as we decide our preferred candidate, among all the different factors to weigh, I believe Christians should carefully balance individual rights, not only against the good of the community but also against that which is morally wrong.

Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics)

About Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics)

Jeffrey J. Barrows, DO, MA (Ethics), serves as Senior Vice President of Bioethics and Public Policy for Christian Medical & Dental Associations. Dr. Barrows is an obstetrician/gynecologist, author, educator, medical ethicist and speaker. He completed his medical degree at the Des Moines College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery in 1978 and his residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jeff. Much appreciated!

  2. Avatar Adam Harris on October 30, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    I appreciate what you are trying to do here, and I would like to help you understand the other side. I agree with you fundamentally that the idea of rights is being used as a political tool. However, I am afraid that you are trying to define “rights” as solely “human rights” narrowly as in the oft discussed declaration of independence as opposed to political rights as are discussed in the actual constitution of the United States. In the constitution you will find attached a bill of rights. These are not fundamental human rights; these are American rights. The right to a free press is essential in a democracy as it is crucial to the education of the people for effective voting and for self-governance and as a check on the power of government. The second amendment is likewise a check on the military power of government. The 13th amendment guarantees liberty and outlaws slavery. And the 14th amendment enshrines “privileges” of citizenship, thought it does not formally identify all of them. In fact, the 9th amendment says that there are many rights which are not labeled in the constitution. So I am afraid that when you are saying there are human rights but not all of these other “individual” rights, then you are significantly out of step with the country in which you live. In fact, the constitution brazenly enshrines them throughout.

    Second is trying to understand what the other side is referring to when they describe “rights” such as healthcare and education. What is being argued for here is not fundamentally individual rights; rather corporate rights of the people. It is an argument that these things should be shared in an equitable manner. There should not be a fundamentally different education or medical system for people with money and for those with less. In that way, it is a right of the people to be able to access healthcare in our modern society, and an opportunity to access education that is equitable. I don’t think people are clamoring for an individual right, but for an increase in the corporate responsibility of society towards the least among us.

    Finally, I must a take hard line against your fundamental thesis as stated in your second paragraph. For not only does it fly in the face of medical ideals throughout the ages, but it is anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ. You state “I’ve always looked at these ‘rights’ more as privileges to be earned rather than something to be expected from society.” Can you clearly stand up and say that medical care is to be earned? Do vulnerable children “earn” their healthcare? Do people with down syndrome earn their heart surgery? Do children with muscular dystrophy earn their power wheelchairs? Did the man on the side of the road earn the good Samaritan’s favor? Did the paralytic earn his ability to walk? Did the man with the withered hand earn it to be made whole? Did the leper earn his cure?

    The answer to these things is clearly no. Medicine at its core is not a privilege to be earned, but rather something given to us because of the image of God in us. The right of healthcare is something that Christians should find deep common ground on with those who advocate for it. In fact, this very publication champions healthcare to the least of people as is seen. What is an infant more than a bundle of rights (and responsibilities)? If healthcare is demanded for the infant who has earned nothing, then it is fundamentally a right, not a “privilege to be earned.”

    • Avatar Jeff Barrows on November 3, 2020 at 7:13 pm

      Dr. Harris,

      Thank you for your lengthy response to my blog post. One of my goals with this post was to generate a discussion around the topic of human rights/individual rights etc.

      Of course I’m well aware of the “Bill of Rights” which apply solely to citizens of the United States and I’m very glad you brought them up. A majority of the rights within the Bill of Rights guarantee what many have called “freedom from” rights. Freedom of speech guarantees a freedom from being censored. Freedom to bear arms is a freedom from the government preventing a person from purchasing and owning guns. Freedom of religion is a freedom from the government imposing any form or law or restriction on my exercise of religion. 

      The rights I address in my blog post are a different kind of rights. Instead of “freedom from” rights which protect me from government interference, the rights proclaimed today go the opposite direction. These newly proclaimed rights demand that the government provide something. You refer to these as corporate rights of the people. Let me be clear, I believe that Biblically everyone should be allowed equal access to education and medical care. I also agree that the government should play a role in that. But I believe the government should create the conditions that allow equal access to education and health care. My family members are arguing that the government’s role is to actually provide equitable education and health care. That is where I would differ. I don’t believe it is the government’s role to provide education or health care. So while I agree that there should not be a “fundamentally different education or medical system for people with money and for those with less”, I believe we may disagree on how the equitable system would be achieved. 

      Regarding my second paragraph, I should have written more clearly. Let me give you an example of what I mean. During my first mission trip to Honduras many decades ago, our team went into the hills and provided medical care to those living in very rural areas of Honduras. They didn’t have much money of course and we did what we could for them. But in order for the people to see the health care professional, they had to pay $1, the equivalent of a days wage. At first I was a little surprised at that. Of course, we didn’t get any of that money. It was collected and given to the local churches to be used to meet local needs. When I asked why we were making these people pay so much when they had so little, I was told that it helped them value the care they received. In other words, experience had taught those leading the trip that if free care was given, first of all everyone came regardless of need, and secondly, they had found that when the care had cost something for the person receiving it, they were more likely to follow the directions of the health care provider. 

      I believe these truths are universal because they apply to human nature. When we receive something that costs us nothing, we value it less. I have seen this reality throughout my decades of medical practice since that mission trip. In your response, you specifically chose examples of the vulnerable such as a child with Down syndrome or with muscular dystrophy. Those of course are examples of exceptions rather than the rule. Of course those children cannot earn their health care. But their parents will value that health care more and will have more self respect if they were able in some way to contribute to that health care. You also bring up examples from Scripture such as the paralytic. No, the paralytic did not earn his ability to walk. It was a gift from God…by His grace. 

      But let me remind you, Jesus did not heal all paralytics, nor did He heal everyone who was ill. At the pool of Bethesda, we are told He only healed one person, in spite of many others seeking healing. I believe the reason for that is that Jesus did not view good health as the ultimate good and He certainly never considered it a right. He was more concerned with faith, specifically faith in the God who saves us all. That’s why the Apostle Paul was never healed from his “thorn in the flesh”. 

      In conclusion, when I say that health care should be earned, I mean that each adult receiving health should make some contribution toward the provision of that health care as they are able. My blog post was written in the context of individual rights. I find no reference in Scripture nor in our constitution in which health care is a right. It certainly is a good and government should do what is possible to make access to good medical care equitable. 

      Jeff Barrows

      • Avatar Debra Minotti on November 9, 2020 at 2:51 pm

        Clearly from these responses, freedoms, rights and entitlements are open to interpretation. We even see how they can lead to people taking deadly, violent and unlawful action. However, abortion is simply murder. Can it be that many young Christians don’t have a clear understanding of the brutality of the act and they are not aware of the development of that life? I believe that’s up to us in the medical community to bring clarity without condemnation. May God’s Spirit bring conviction.

  3. Avatar Guy W. Robins, M.D. on October 31, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Strong thoughts, thank you.

  4. Avatar Ronald Hamner, MD on October 31, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    The issue of human rights often sparks heated controversy. Christians will sometimes argue vehemently about a right and will base friendship within the church on another’s position on that right. Why? Are we not called to unity in the Faith and to show we are Christians by our love?
    I think the communication problem stems from narrow, incomplete understanding about rights. The Declaration of Independence states that “we hold truths to be self-evident” that we are created equal and endowed by God with unalienable rights – life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. These are the only inherent rights based on the truth that we are created and endowed by God, not men. All other rights are granted by government or ruling power. These “human” rights can be granted or repealed. However, all rights are 2 sided. That is, they carry responsibilities. A woman has rights to control her body but assumes a responsibility when another life is inside her womb. Healthcare can be granted as a right by a government but carries responsibility to pay for the care so that caregiver compensation reflects that work, resources used wisely and the patient participates to achieve the best results. Rights are not alone.

    • Avatar Jeffrey Barrows on October 31, 2020 at 5:09 pm

      Ronald,

      I agree that there is a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding rights. I also agree that rights are 2 sided, but I would put it differently. There are rights that protect us from something, and there are rights that we claim in order to give us something. The Founders had in mind the first type of rights when they wrote the Bill of Rights, thus giving us freedom of speech and religion, guaranteeing us protection from government interference. Those today who demand a right to health care are demanding something the Founders never envisioned. They demand that the government provide them health care at little or no cost. My view is that the role of government is put in place safeguards to allow equal access to health care. That is different than the right to health care.

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