The Right to Life: What Does It Mean?
"Right to life" sounds like a very noble slogan and, indeed, few ideals could be more admirable except, of course, for a "right to a decent life." A decent life, including justice, freedom, dignity, fair play, adequate food, opportunity, freedom from persecution, authenticity, and all human and civil rights, is clearly denied to a great proportion of the Earth's human children, not to mention her animal and other offspring.
Native Americans and most other Indigenous peoples seem to recognize a "right to life" for all living creatures and, certainly, for Mother Earth herself.
Recognizing that we do have to eat to live, Indigenous peoples nonetheless tend to consume much less than European-derived peoples and other aggressive mass populations, and tend also to desire that nonhuman species be recognized as sharing rights to the world with us two-leggeds.
In the United States a movement has appeared among Angle-Americans especially, and in particular among so-called evangelical Christians and some Roman Catholics, a movement ostensibly devoted to "Right to Life."
But what these people seem to mean by a "right to life" is strange indeed, given their frequent support of the death penalty for crimes and their apparent support for aggressive U.S. military adventures across the globe, adventures which recently have resulted in the estimated deaths of up to 100,000 Iraqis, and which also, in the 1960s through 1990s, resulted in the killing of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians, hundreds of thousands of First American peoples in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, et cetera, and millions of Africans in Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere.
It seems clear, that by "right to life" the movement in question does not mean the protection of adult human lives, nor of children's lives, nor of non-human lives, nor do they seem, in general, to be concerned with the quality of lives of the poorest peoples both in the USA and around the globe (there are exceptions, of course, but the evangelical's support of programs for the poor often seem to involve charity and missionary work, rather than any attempt to alter structurally the inequalities of capitalism or entrenched feudalism).
Several years ago I wrote an article on the right to life concept as it pertained to the homeless in our country. I noted that the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that no "person" shall be deprived of "life" without "due process of law." I suggested that we can all agree that at least after birth all human beings are "persons" and that they have a right to "life."
But in what does "life" consist? Certainly, a person has to be able to carry on all basic bodily functions, such as breathing, eating, drinking potable water, defecating, and urinating... It is utterly impossible to conceive of any living organism existing without "space." This living-space must be sufficient to carry out all basic bodily functions in a reasonably healthy manner.
Few if any creatures can exist in their own excrement or urine, in their own filth, with any chance of living. Thus life must; include living-space sufficient for carrying on life's functions and for producing progeny.
Unfortunately, throughout much of the United States the relationship of "space" to the "right to life" has not been recognized. We have commodified virtually all space and have given approval to the hoarding of space (and other resources of life) by private individuals and by corporations. And we have granted to the latter super-rights as "artificial persons."
Any serious discussion of the "right to life" must begin by focusing upon what "life" means and what creatures need in order to live a decent and hopefully rewarding life. Recently, many North Americans have become mobilized around the issue of the rights of unborn human children.
They do not speak of the rights of the unborn generally, but only of human unborn ones. In this, they betray their loyalty to one of the major features of European and Euro-Middle Eastern imperialism, and that is the relative indifference to the Creator's nonhuman children. They also, unfortunately, often do not realize to what extent they are caught up in Middle Eastern and feudal European traditions of anti-womanism.
A discussion of the right to life, then, must begin with respect for Ancient American and / other Indigenous beliefs about the sacredness of all living creatures, of the Mother Earth, and of women.
The United States is not merely a "white man's country" although some would have us believe that. It is also not a Middle Eastern religion country, in spite of the presence of millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Ancient Americans and other peoples living here deserve respect and their religious, spiritual, and cultural rights must be considered when we speak of a "right to life."
When bison are being slaughtered in Yellowstone National Park because they are "inconvenient" to the National Park Service, when cruel methods of industrially "farming" chickens, cattle, hogs, and other animals is the order of the day, when we have no laws protecting monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other sentient beings from being used as experimental guinea pigs (being placed in pain and given terrible diseases, for example), how can we speak of "moral values?"
Native Americans and many other Americans are daily insulted and shamed by what many of us conceive of as terribly cruel and immoral acts.
It is within this context of mutual respect for all Creation that we must begin a dialog about the right to life, a dialog which should not be politicized by any political party or particular religion and then rammed down the throats of other truly spiritual people as if they did not exist. Instead it is time to pay attention to the way the Original Americans and other good people look at all living beings.
© 2004 Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is a historian, social critic, and poet, covering issues of international and inter-ethnic relations for 45 years. He is the author of Red Blood, Africans and Native Americans, Apache, Navaho and Spaniard and other books. He is professor emeritus of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at his web site. His mailing address: Native American Studies Department, University of California, Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, California 95616. See the journals AYAANGWAAMIUN, WICAZO SA REVIEW, and other Native sources for further understanding.
This article was originally published in News From Indian Country November 29, 2004