Against Human Rights!

Mary Warnock is not a fan of human rights. In fact she would rather we did not talk in terms of rights. In her book, Making Babies: Is there a right to have children? (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2003) she puts forward her case that she would rather people didn’t talk in terms of rights at all. The advances in reproductive technology are one thing but there are side effects. People seem to demand medical and remedial treatment as if it were a right and now they are demanding children as if a child was a right, rather than something they dearly wanted.

Warnock argues that rights only make sense if someone has a duty to meet those rights. It is meaningless to talk in terms of a right to a child because that is not always possible. Even talking in terms of rights spoils the relationship between doctor and patient. There are limits to what a doctor can give us. There are things which we once saw as something which we were lucky to get which we now see as something we have a right to. Take education. We used to be grateful for the education we got. Now we have an idea that we should be supplied with an education and that someone has a legal duty to provide it. People say they have a right to be told the truth in their relationships. The language of human rights is aggressive and self-centred and can undermine other ethical concepts such as agape love – unconditional love which is freely given, rather than demanded by right.

While this seems rather conservative, on the matter of homosexuals’ access to reproductive technologies, Warnock is surprisingly libertarian. She argues that there is clear evidence that children brought up in care are much more likely to be damaged. In principle, there is no reason to presume that children brought up in a loving homosexual family will be as likely to be damaged. If children can flourish in that situation they should be allowed to do so.

Warnock’s contribution is important, both in particular reproductive issues and wider questions of ethical theory. She provides a clear warning against the commodification of children, which the idea of a right to a child has a tendency to do, and also against the application of a very individualistic idea of rights ethics which fails to think sensibly about the relationship between rights and duties.

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