Friday, February 10, 2012

The Hierarchy of Rights

OK, doing something now that I almost never do.  I'm writing down my thoughts with no particular plan or organization in mind.  So bear with me if this seems random or disorganized.

That said, I am really proud of the title I came up with.  Sounds so "founding fathers," doesn't it??

Anyway, a couple of things have popped up in the news recently that are really sticking in my craw.  Funny thing is, in my mind anyway, they are completely related and are being placed at various places in an unwritten hierarchy of rights.

First, a definition. defines hierarchy as "any system of persons or things ranked one above another.  So a hierarchy of rights is a system of deciding which rights are more important than others.

Stick with me, I promise it will get more interesting.

Admittedly we rank and/or limit our rights all the time.  The classic example is yelling "fire" in a crowded theater.  I may have the right of free speech and free expression, but my "right" to yell fire is limited by others' right to not get trampled trying to escape a burning building.  Had I planned this blog better I'd probably have more, perhaps more humorous examples, but that is all that comes to mind right now.

We can accept such limitations and rankings because they clearly make sense.  No one can reasonably claim that my right to yell fire outweighs the personal safety of the other theater goers.  But what about when the rights are more philosophical?

Say, religious vs. reproductive.

Making big headlines last week was the decision by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to stop funding Planned Parenthood.  Komen's stated policy was that it would not fund organizations which were under investigation.  At no time did they ever say that their decision was permanent, leaving the door open to resume funding once the investigation was over.  And never did they imply that the funds would be redirected to any unworthy cause.

Still, the firestorm was at once predictable, misguided, and tragic.

Komen was quickly painted as a fanatical right-wing organization that allowed politics to color its decision.  Missing from the rhetoric was the millions of dollars that Komen gives to multiple breast cancer clinics and research organizations.  Included only were the doomsday scenarios of women who would be denied access to mammograms and other medical care because poor, poverty stricken Planned Parenthood (2009 net income $106 million) would not be able to provide the care, having been unfairly treated by the Komen kooks who so callously held back money.

Because of the heat that Komen faced, they reversed their decision a few days later, stating that they would change their policy to specifically only stop funding over criminal investigations.  NOTE: it is important to note that the investigation that started all of this was a congressional investigation over whether Planned Parenthood used federal funds for abortions, which is a violation of U.S. law, making it indeed a criminal investigation.  But hey, why confuse the public with the facts?

This week's hierarchical debate is based on the Obama Administration's decision to mandate that all insurance companies, even those whose religious convictions prohibit it, fund birth control.  The White House maintains that it believes that it struck a proper balance between a woman's "right" to contraception and the beliefs of the Catholic Church (which has been the most vocal opponent).  As of this writing it is being reported that the White House is reconsidering it's decision and is considering a compromise.  But I can't imagine where the compromise might be between "Thou shall" and "Thou shalt not."

Both of these stories entail a shuffling of the hierarchy of rights.

In the hierarchy of women's healthcare rights, the right to an abortion (hideous as that is) trumps the right of an organization to make its own choices regarding funding.  True, Planned Parenthood argues that they keep their abortion funding separate from their other healthcare funding, but isn't that rather like saying that I keep my meat separate from my vegetables on my plate?  As my father used to say, "it all goes to the same place anyway." 

Granted this was not a government intrusion, but society and the media can legislate without legislating.

In the hierarchy of rights vis-a-vis contraception, the White House in making its decision decided that a woman's right to free birth control outweighs the church's right to discourage what it considers sin.

Why is all of this so important to a man who has little chance of getting breast cancer, will likely never take birth control pills, and doesn't give to any of the above causes?

A quick review of a third, less reported news event of this past week gives an answer.  In an interview with Egyptian TV, sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said,

"You should certainly be aided by all the constitution-writing that has gone one since the end of World War II. I would not look to the US constitution, if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa. That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights, had an independent judiciary… It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done. Much more recent than the US constitution – Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world?"

This is relevant because we seem to be entering an era where the government believes they can decide just what our rights are.  And ranking what we see now as rights is always the first step in eliminating the lesser ranked ones.