Sir, - Your correspondent Fr Vincent Twomey takes issue with a brief reference to the absoluteness of rights in general, including the right to life, in the recent publication of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, Re-Righting the Constitution (October 12th). This may give your readers the impression that the publication is mainly about the right to life.
For the record, therefore, the fundamental proposition of Re- Righting the Constitution is that there is a compelling case to be made for the insertion of four socio-economic rights in the Irish Constitution - housing, health, nutrition and an adequate standard of living. In the course of making the case we had to address one of the most frequently voiced objections to giving constitutional status to such rights, namely that they could give rise to open-ended and unrealistic claims on the State's resources following Court judgements.
The specific context in which we referred to the right to life should be clear from the following extract from Re-Righting the Constitution: "The obligation to respect (ie the rights proposed) requires the State to refrain from doing anything that violates the integrity of the individual or infringes a person's freedom, including the freedom to use the material resources available to the individual in whatever way he or she finds best to satisfy the material need in question. Under this aspect, therefore, none of the rights proposed would necessarily be expected to entail any significant resource implications."
"To state an obligation on the part of the State to respect a right does not mean that an individual can expect an absolute, unqualified entitlement to, or exercise of that right. Even as fundamental a right as the right to life, already recognised in the Constitution, does not guarantee freedom from death by illness or accident, by murder, negligence or war. And it still leaves open the difficult question of balancing one person's right to life with that of others (in pregnancy, emergencies, or allocation of scarce resources, for instance). In resource terms the constitutional right to life does not confer on the individual an entitlement to unlimited medical resources or expenditure."
In objecting to our phrasing Fr Twomey would appear to have transferred without qualification concepts which are proper to the realm of morality into that of constitutional law. In fact, although of course the two realms overlap, they are not identical. As the context of the whole document makes clear, we are concerned with the potential of the State and its constitution to guarantee to respect the exercise of any right for everyone.
Fr Twomey acknowledges that a vigorous debate on the insertion of the proposed socio-economic rights in the Constitution is "urgently needed". On this fundamental matter it would appear that we agree. - Yours, etc.,
The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace,