Liberals and Reproductive “Rights”

Over the last 4 years I have signed petitions from a number sites that have dealt with civil liberties, often unaware of the other policies the hosting organizations promote. One of those sites, Advocates for Youth, regularly sends email updates, urging me to sign petitions and take surveys, which I try to do when I have time. In one such survey, sent out in the run-up to Inauguration Day, respondents are asked:

As Inauguration Day approaches, we’d love to know what YOU think President Obama’s priorities for reproductive and sexual health and rights should be in his second term.

I took the survey (I did not check a single box) and then read, and re-read, this statement. Reproductive rights. What are they? According to the ACLU:

The ability to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term is essential to women’s equality, autonomy, and dignity, with implications for every aspect of her life — her educational aspirations, career goals, economic status, and, more broadly, her ability to live the life she planned. Despite the formal existence of the right to a safe and legal abortion, for many women abortion access is regulated so that it’s almost, or entirely, out of reach. And the struggle is getting worse. The ACLU is working to ensure that women in the U.S. have timely access to abortion care. 

This is what in the philosophical world is known as a “positive right,” in this case, to abortions. While a “negative right” is a right to be free from some restriction or limitation (e.g. the right to free speech — the government cannot restrict your speech), a positive right is the right to something, a good or service which must be provided by others.

I hope to lay out a concrete philosophy in my next few blogs that will help the YAL community have answers to the following questions:

  • What does it mean to say we have rights?
  • What (in greater detail) is the difference between positive and negative rights?
  • Which kind(s) of rights does the liberty philosophy support?
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