Unnatural law

Light is Right Joe Campbell

I don’t have a supple mind. Unlike some highly trained professionals, I can’t abide contradictions. When a British Columbia judge ruled that the right to life can also mean the right to death, I realized how inflexible my non-professional intellect is.

I couldn’t hand down a ruling like that. Of course, I couldn’t. I’m not a judge. But even if I were a Supreme Court justice, I couldn’t do it. Contradictions don’t dwell peaceably in my mind. They never have. Paradoxes I can reconcile and enjoy. But paradoxes are only apparent contradictions. Inconsistencies I can’t reconcile and I don’t enjoy. Inconsistencies are real contradictions.

Laws against assisted suicide, the learned judge, Lynn Smith, ruled, unjustifiably infringe on the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Not being a judge, I can’t figure out how laws that forbid helping us kill ourselves deny our right to life; how laws that allow helping us kill ourselves affirm our right to life. Denying assisted suicide, in my non-judicial opinion, affirms life, whereas affirming assisted suicide denies life.

I also can’t figure out how laws that forbid helping us kill ourselves deny our right to liberty and security. Maybe the judge heard convincing testimony that life is freer and safer after death than before. If so, she appears not to have heard equally convincing testimony that anyone who chooses suicide with full knowledge and consent may have difficulty reaching that heavenly state. Even I know that plea-bargaining has its limits.

But judges have been dancing with death since Parliament entrenched a right to life in our Constitution. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms empowered them to impose nation-wide fatal rulings with full knowledge and consent. You could say that the Charter granted judges more consequential rights and freedoms than anyone else. So, while upholding the right to life, they stripped the lives of the unborn of legal protection and elevated life denying sexual unions to the level of life affirming marriages.

Judges aren’t the only professionals who make contradictory decisions. The editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal has opted against spanking, because it punishes children violently. But the Canadian Medical Association, which publishes the journal, has opted for abortion, even though it kills children violently.

The editor cites research suggesting that spanked children may turn into maladjusted adults. At least the medical association needn’t worry that aborted children may turn into maladjusted adults. Maybe the CMA considers abortion preventive medicine. Come to think of it, maybe the British Columbia judge considers assisted suicide preventive medicine. It prevents the need for palliative care.

When I complained to my good friend Dingwall, he denied that judges and doctors are inconsistent. “They’re commitment to human rights is consistent with moral relativism,” he said.

“Moral relativism itself is inconsistent,” I protested.

“Only if rights are entrenched in an unchanging reality,” he replied. “If their meaning changes according to human will or whim, moral relativism is consistent with the changes.

“The right to life is entrenched in the Charter,” I said.

“But what is the Charter entrenched in?”

“An Act of Parliament interpreted by the judiciary,” I said.

“Neither of which is an unchanging reality,” Dingwall replied, “Under relativism, the right to life is a social construct, and what is constructed can be deconstructed.”

I couldn’t help but agree that it was being deconstructed as we spoke.

“If rights are relative to changing circumstances rather than unchanging principles,” he continued, “to complain of inconsistencies makes no sense. Circumstances are changeable by definition. Essential principles are not.”

“Essential principles?”

“Principles that defend and promote goods fundamental to our unchanging human nature, principles of natural law.”

“People change,” I said.

“But not their rational nature. Change that and they would no longer be people.”

“Under current and proposed unnatural law,” I said, “some are no longer treated as people.”

“Natural law isn’t only about rights,” Dingwall went on, “but also about duties. Because we have a duty to complete our human project, we have a right to the means. Rights are claims we make on others. Duties are claims our nature makes on us. If there weren’t any others, we would have duties but no rights.”

“Are you stating that if I were the only person alive I would have no rights?

“We don’t say that our right to life would be violated if a virus, an animal or a tornado were to kill us. We only say so if a rational human were to do it.”

“Maybe so, Dingwall, but irrational humans already do it legally, and propose to do more of it.”

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