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Can human rights be repealed by majority vote?

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This Friday, May 25, Irish voters will decide in a national referendum whether to repeal Article 8 of the Constitution, which “acknowledges” the rights of all living human beings in Ireland, including unborn children, and encourages lawmakers to enact “laws to defend and vindicate that right.” The new language would allow the right to abortion (or, in the proposed wording, “termination of pregnancies”).

What does it mean if the Republic of Ireland repeals a constitutional provision that does not claim to impart, but only to recognize, unalienable rights? If human beings have any pre-existing “right,” can it be repealed by majority vote? In an article posted on Acton’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website today, Bruce Arnold – the former chief critic of the Irish Independentwrites:

In five instances in the Constitution, two of them enacted in 2012, the personal and family rights that it guarantees are described as “natural” rights. They are said to be recognised, acknowledged, and affirmed —but never “conferred”— by the Constitution. They are also variously described as inalienable and imprescriptible rights, antecedent and superior to all positive law.

This is a very clear affirmation by the people of the principle that our fundamental rights are not created or conferred by a vote in a referendum, but that we owe them to one another as human beings. A “natural” right is precisely one that is inherent in human nature. It does not depend for its origin or authority on any human law, although it requires such laws for its effectiveness. Recognition of such rights is not optional or elective. As the basic rule of justice in society, our Constitution must and does acknowledge and vindicate them.

After probing the legal and philosophical underpinnings of natural rights, Arnold warns, “We cannot validly make laws that go against our human nature.”

Read his full analysis here.

(Photo credit: Caravan 4 Peace. This photo has been cropped and transformed. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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