February 7, 1991

Rights for Who or What?

Things have come to a hell of a pass

When a man can't wallop his own jackass.

Author unknown

The LEGAL concept of rights is a relatively new one. Early man had no more rights than any other animal. He had the right, granted by nature, to eat whatever he could and be eaten by creatures with similar rights. The concept of rights as we know them came along with laws.

Rights traditionally belonged to free men, not to women or slaves. Our government started with rights for men. The rights of slaves, women and children were non existent. They were property and only their owners had rights. Like most property, women and slaves were usually taken care of by their owners. They had value --but not rights. Property rights were considered by many to be above any human rights and it was the basis of the Civil War.

When the slaves were freed and were allowed to vote, black people acquired rights because the law said that they had rights. Likewise, women acquired legal rights when they were allowed to vote and to own property. Blacks and women then became people in the eyes of the law. What rights Native Americans have is still not clear to me.

While there are still many vestiges of the way that things were, there is no question that the direction of world societies is toward the legal equality of all adult humans.

The enactment of child labor laws in the early 1900s put the legal system squarely against the abuse of children. Yet children have few legal rights. In the eyes of the law, children are property, not people. They are a special kind of property and you can get a tax deduction instead of an assessment for them in contrast to your other property. If you destroy your child it is considered murder, the same as if you had killed your wife. This is in contrast to the way that things were a few hundred years ago, and in contrast to the way things are in some parts of the world where a man can do as he pleases with his property; his women and children. There are countries where a man would not be put in prison for killing his wife and children. It would be considered the same as if he had killed some sheep. It has been said that one can measure how civilized a country is by the way that it treats its women and children.

There are now movements afoot which are asking for --no, not asking for --demanding, rights for fetuses and animals. With these, we are dealing with a very different concept. While there is little difference between the brains of people of different races and different sexes, there is a great difference between a grown human and a newborn or embryo. There are real qualitative differences between humans and animals.

Since rights are conferred by society, we could, if we wanted to, say that insects have rights. No one is proposing this, but who knows? At the same time, many consider how things (as in people and things) are used as matters in which society has an interest. It seems to me that there might someday be a movement for tree's rights. This reflects a tendency of people to anthropomorphise non-human creatures. This tendency has been aided by the cartoon industry which portrays talking trees and animals.

There is little question nowadays that all adult human beings have legal rights. They are not property. At what point are those rights acquired? Age 21 was considered that point. Then it became age 18, but only the right to vote, not the right to buy booze. It is also now accepted that children have certain rights such as the right to life and freedom from excessive physical force. At this point things blur. Most people accept a parents right to punish their child with mild physical force. Not many people make a big issue out of whacking a kid on the hand or butt. While many believe in no physical punishment, reasonable people are willing to let others use mild physical punishment. There is no question that sexually or physically "abusing" a child is now a crime in our society.

The age at which a child is considered a "person" has been decreasing all the time. Killing a newborn is now murder, while it wasn't too long ago that it was considered as an acceptable means of birth control in ancient Greece and into this century in China. There are people who consider a human embryo as having rights although the existing laws do not now support this idea. The courts have decided that a fetus or an animal has no rights. That might change some day. Didn't slaves and women have no rights just a short while ago?

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