Noteworthy conversation with a somewhat liberal but very knowledgeable friend last week. He wondered how pro-lifers like me can prioritize abortion over (say) capital punishment.
I was a little surprised that a well informed man like my friend would not know better, so it took me a moment to respond (and rather imperfectly) that the right to life is the basis of all other rights. I should have also preceded that statement by observing that there are a hierarchy of rights, and adding that if a government can arbitrarily deprive the innocent of life, then no other right has any meaning.
(Whereas one may argue with the practicalities of capital punishment—whether the innocent are being executed—, the condemned are at least supposedly guilty of infringing on the rights to life of others, or of similarly grave crimes like rape.)
In 1993 Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta said with her characteristic simplicity:
Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be declared to be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.
It is worth noting that there are limits to the validity of "rights talk." The idea of rights assumes that each human being is an autonomous, impenetrable individual bearing an ever-escalating number of priviledges, past even the "right to a paid vacation." A much better way to speak is traditional idea of justice, which incorporates the idea that each individual (or better: "human person") is part of a much larger whole that must be ordered to the (common) good of all. With our individualistic American mentality, we might smell socialism (or communism!), but I think the truth is that these modern ideologies incorporate elements of truth along with their falsehoods. (As the saying goes, the devil tells us nine truths to get us to believe a single lie.)
In truth, the individual is meaningless without a society in which to live, just as society can have no meaning unless the individuals who compose it have an absolute, God-given right to life. As Benjamin Franklin wisely said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.