To say that something is less important does not mean it is irrelevant, but to call something most important is to call it foundational. Even before the framework of a house is built, the foundation must be laid. Ironically, the strongest and most necessary aspect of the house lays hidden in the ground, and the structure of the house depends on the most significant, most hidden part. This idea, that the foundation is the most important, yet most concealed, feature of the house, is analogous to the reason why abortion is the most important human rights issue of our day.

The question of whether abortion is the most important human rights issue can be considered from a pro-life or a pro-abortion standpoint. The pro-life view contends that every child, at every stage, has a right to life, whereas the pro-abortion side argues that it is the mother’s right to abort; the child is ultimately dispensable.

Abortion is the most fundamental human rights issue of our day precisely because it ignores the right to life of the child, and thereby undermines the foundation of all other human rights.

Long before he issued his call to arms in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II dedicated much of his investigation and writing to clarify the concept of the human person. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote to his friend, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, “I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level.” Here, we see Wojtyla’s equation of the identity of humanhood and personhood, which so supports a healthy culture and any substantial pro-life ethic.
John Paul II, who grew up during Poland’s Nazi occupation and later battled communist oppression, knew that the morality of a people depended upon their concept of the person. History teaches that philosophical and political misconceptions of the human person not only result in confusion, but in horrible suffering and death.

Toleration of abortion today stems, in large part, from the twisted post-modern concepts of the human person. By reducing the person to someone whose worth derives from his autonomy and, ironically, then interpreting this autonomy as a condemnation, the influential French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, sowed seeds of death. My neighbour is hell, he said. That the dreariness and darkness of such a philosophy is incapable of supporting a fulsome life ethic is obvious.

The Sartrean relationship between one man and another is similar to the view the pro-abortionist holds of the unborn baby: it is a blunt rejection of the interdependence of human beings, for pregnancy is the most interdependent relationship there is. The total reliance of the baby upon the mother is unlike any other human-to-human encounter. The hate evident in Sartre’s statement is, in fact, rooted in a misunderstanding of his own identity. The truth about humans is just the opposite: “It is precisely through the participation in the humanness of others that a person is rescued from individuality and discovers his true identity.”

Insofar as Jean-Paul Sartre considered his neighbours to be hell, he obviously lacked a life-giving relationship with them. Contrarily, involvement with others, as a way to knowing oneself, is the leit motif of the work of the Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who says that the face of my neighbour calls me to being. He gives evidence that our arrival at the concept of personhood is only made possible by recognizing ourselves as truly human in relation to others. In the abortion debate, this telling insight strongly suggests that because the child in the womb is dependent upon his mother, and so involved in her humanness, he is a human person.

Those who advocate abortion on the basis that it is a mother’s right to choose abortion fail to recognize that the child’s right to life supersedes the mother’s right to abort. Human rights necessarily concern the rights of others. If we refuse to acknowledge the rights of the child in utero, then we can no longer discuss abortion as an issue of human rights. If human rights are reduced to my rights alone, then they can no longer be the basis of argument in broader society.

Abortion is the most foundational human’s rights issue because in the pregnancy, the mother responds to the needs of her child. This epitomizes what human rights are; that is, the protection of the rights of others in response to their needs (the right to life, in the case of the unborn baby). Life is the most foundational of all rights, for it is only through life that our other rights come into existence. Moreover, since the child in the womb is the most vulnerable of all human beings, he deserves the most protection. If the right to life is not given to the most vulnerable, how easy would it be to deny the rights of grown men and women? How is it that we so conveniently neglect the stunningly obvious truth that Agnes Howard pinpoints? “Pregnancy is a primary community, an exhibit to onlookers, as well as to mothers of interdependence, charity, and life together … None of us at the beginning is autonomous.”

Abortion is the most important human rights issue of our day because it is the termination of the most fundamental human relationship. Abortion is like the destruction of the foundation of the house, which once destroyed, inhibits the raising of any structure. Similarly, it is because the abuse of this most fundamental of human rights has been allowed that we now accept so easily other abuses, such as euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and artificial contraception. Let us give the final say, perhaps, to the greatest mother of the past 100 years, Teresa of Calcutta: “If a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.”

Heather Mason is a senior student at St. Peter’s Secondary School in Peterborough, Ont. This is a shortened version of one of the three co-winning essays in the Fr. Ted Colleton Scholarship Award event.