There are few topics that are of greater importance than “rights.” At the same time, the topic of rights has been egregiously misunderstood and fraudulently represented. What are rights? Are they the exclusive domain of human beings? What is the basis of a right? How can rights be protected? Can there be rights without duties? These are certainly important questions, though their answers are often confusing and contradictory.

That the subject of rights is important is widely upheld. Unfortunately, there is an unbridgeable chasm between their recognized importance and how they should be applied. Some years ago, the well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote a piece for Redbook entitled, “The Many Rights to Life.” The redoubtable Ms. Mead generously extended the notion of rights to all animals and plants by declaring that “Clean air and safe water have become rights for all living things.” In her sweeping largesse, she bestows rights upon even those who have passed on. The deceased, she writes, have both the right to be mourned after death as well as the right “to vanish into the unremembered past.” She includes, in her bountiful list, the “right to a chosen sexual identity.”

Her munificence, however, does have limitations. She strongly opposes “the right of the conceived but unborn to emerge alive from the womb.” Thus, she strongly disagrees with the “absolutism” of the Right to Life Movement and approves amniocentesis followed by abortion so that couples may avoid “the tragedy of having predestined a living being to defective survival.” Many of her so-called rights are merely benefits, while she denies that a living human being in the womb has a right that is commensurate to the right a fish has to swim in “safe water.”

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