Monday, May 24, 2010

Individual Rights

Recently my sister had an interesting blog on going to the movies. We share an upbringing in which we did not go to movies. I still don’t, although only because I don’t enjoy watching movies; she is now (in my eyes) something of a connoisseur.

One of the first movies she went to was “The Cardinal”, which includes the following (as she my sister describes it: “What I particularly remember about this movie is one scene where the central character, who is by now a cardinal (hence the title), learns that his sister is pregnant. When she is due to deliver her child, she learns that the baby's head is too large for the mother to safely deliver. The cardinal is faced with a decision. Give permission for the fetus's head to be crushed, and the sister thereby saved OR refuse permission in which case his sister will die.” The Cardinal chooses the latter.

That memory connected in her blog to a recent news story, quoted here from an NPR report: “Last November, a 27-year-old woman was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. She was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, and she was gravely ill. According to a hospital document, she had ‘right heart failure,’ and her doctors told her that if she continued with the pregnancy, her risk of mortality was ‘close to 100 percent.’” An administrator at the Catholic hospital decided that the abortion was permissible under Catholic Law to save the life of the mother and authorized the procedure. When the administrator’s bishop learned of it, he excommunicated her.

So the question, to which many Americans and Canadians give the answer as self-evident: “What is wrong with these church officials?” Even asking the question that way suggests that our categories are such that we cannot understand what is going on in their minds. We start with such differences in our basic assumptions about life that we don’t even know what has actually happened.

In the rest of this blog, my own short (short) version of the problem: The basic assumption that negates the decisions of the cardinal and the bishop is our cultural commitment to the supremacy of personal individual choice. The USA was built on the search for freedom, especially the freedom of the individual to run his/her own life as far as possible. In this respect Libertarians and Pro-Choice are alike (however differently any individual libertarian and pro-choice person may be) – they share their commitment to the supremacy of individual rights.

I know that this value is also at the centre of the way that I process life; but I am uneasy with it. The study if cultures reveals many different patterns in different societies, balancing the rights of individuals and the importance of the larger community in a variety of ways. I share our cultural commitment to the centrality of the individual; but I also believe that commitment to some larger whole is necessary for social and mental and emotional health. The movie and news story that we stated with pit the right of the individual against the value of community and conclude that the right of the individual cannot be limited in any way.

But what if the individuals in question have voluntarily chosen the larger community (in this case, the church) and voluntarily submitted themselves to the authority of the larger community? When we ask this question, people think of various tragic situations, such as Jonestown, and conclude that we dare not ever allow such a commitment. But devaluing this commitment can also become oppressive. How can we say to the individuals involved, “You have no right to choose to be part of a larger community like this”?

I do not like the choice made by the cardinal or the bishop: I think they got it wrong. But I wonder what we lose when we throw their options out the window. I am at least equally sure that a tyranny of individualism is no better than a tyranny of collectivism.

1 comment:

KGMom said...

Sorry to pick up on this post a bit late. (You post infrequently, so I don't always remember to check...)

I think the reason that I still feel the bishop and the cardinal "got it wrong" is that they were deciding the rights of another over-rode the rights of the woman. I acknowledge that much of my reaction is tangled up with my feelings of women's rights. I also acknowledge that I am sensitive to the degree to which I feel too many religions have been too quick to subvert women's rights in the name of collective religion.
Anyway, it is the subject for a longer conversation. Some day.