Whatever this referendum is about, it is not about human rights

The Yes and No sides’ appeal to human rights is opportunistic, contrived and unhelpful

Here we go again. Not for the first time Irish citizens will be asked to express their opinion on abortion legislation. One would like to think that this will also be the last time, but it is too early to say that, and perhaps, in any case, a desire born of unquenchable quixotic inclinations.

The debate about abortion can be, and often is, toxic. No issue is as divisive as abortion or as complex, encompassing a plethora of dimensions, including constitutional theory, public morality, personal conscience, human biology and gender equality.

As Friday’s referendum draws nearer, lucidity becomes imperative, and when clarity is required philosophy is often a good counsel. It is possible to establish two things that the referendum on the Eight Amendment to the Constitution is not about: it is not about human rights; and it is not a dispute captured by the terminology of “pro-life” versus “pro-choice”.

The language of human rights has become a convenient, lazy way of making one's beliefs sound unquestionably right while everyone else is wrong

Human-rights abuse can take different forms. It occurs when the rights of an individual or group are violated, such as when people are tortured. But human rights are also abused whenever people appeal to rights merely to score points in an argument, or when they invoke rights purely for dramatic effect. The language of human rights has become a convenient, lazy way of making one’s beliefs sound important, uncompromising, backed by undeniable truth and unquestionably right while everyone else is wrong.

This abuse of human rights is the result of a conceptual misunderstanding. The confusion arises from the fact that rights are protective shields to safeguard our most pressing interests, and those who take a stand on the abortion debate clearly feel that fundamental interests are at stake. The problem is that an interest is not enough to proclaim a human right. Just because I have a strong interest I don’t automatically have a human right. I may have a very strong interest to be loved by my children, but I certainly don’t have a right to be loved by them.

Anyone who insists on bringing human rights into the abortion ring first has to specify two important points. First, are we talking about legal rights or moral rights? The former may overlap with the latter, as in the legal and moral right not to be tortured, but not always. My legal right to drive a car when holding a valid driving licence is not a moral right. Second, are we talking about claim rights or liberty rights? A claim right establishes a correlated set of duties on specified others, such as the right to education, while a liberty right only defines my licence to perform a certain action, without a duty on my part to do the opposite, such as the right to wear a pink jumper. These are extremely difficult questions, which will not go away merely by gesticulating to human rights with great vigour.

It is far too simple, and self-serving, to dress up one’s set of beliefs in human-rights robes. What we need to remember is that human rights are extremely important but are not absolute. There are internal conflicts between human rights; therefore even human rights are not immune to trade-offs. For all these reasons, in the context of the forthcoming referendum, the appeal to human rights is opportunistic, contrived and, ultimately, unhelpful.

Logic is the branch of philosophy that helps to establish the relationship between different concepts, bringing clarity to our thinking in the process. For example, the relationship between concepts can be grasped as opposites, so we come to understand freedom as the opposite of being dominated, or pleasure as the opposite of pain.

Before anybody votes they have a duty to make an effort to understand what this referendum is about, starting with what it is not about

In the abortion debate two positions are often presented as analytical opposites: pro-life and pro-choice. This is logical sloppiness. Whatever the referendum on the Eighth Amendment is about, it is not about pro-life versus pro-choice, as these terms are not mutually exclusive. The opposite of pro-life is pro-death, not pro-choice. In this debate nobody is pro-death. Nobody wishes for or welcomes anyone’s death. The opposite of pro-choice is more difficult to determine – perhaps pro-determination or pro-domination. In any case, it is anti-choice. I don’t know if “anti-choice” accurately captures the views of the “pro-life” camp, as life is about agency, and agency is reflected in one’s choices, so paradoxically anyone who is pro-life should also be pro-choice.

This week’s referendum is going to be different things to different people. The pro-life-versus-pro-choice terminology, which is taken for granted whenever abortion is debated, is highly misleading and therefore should be abandoned. This referendum is also not about human rights. The only right that applies to this referendum is that, on Friday, people have the right to express their views on this highly divisive issue. But before they do so everyone also has a duty to make an effort to understand what this referendum is about, starting with what it is not about.

Dr Vittorio Bufacchi teaches philosophy at University College Cork