significance, as referring to some "essence" that all human beings have in common (something, let us say, in the Mind of God; or something objectively present in all members of that group). Which means, of course, that we can absolve ourselves from murder by refusing to attach the label to anyone we have reason to kill.
Thus, the authors of the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics justify what they call "after-birth abortion"on the grounds that a "person" can be defined as "an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her." A newborn, the argument goes, since it lacks the conscious sense of the value of its own life, is only a "potential person" and can be "aborted" on any number of medical grounds, or no doubt merely for the sake of convenience. Now, no doubt certain kinds of value (to society, for example) accrue to an infant as it grows and as it develops relationships and skills, not to mention self-awareness. But on the more traditional view, all such values are added to a kind of "baseline" which in the case of human beings is infinite or unquantifiable. This basic value belongs to human beings as such, whether they are conscious of being so or not. And a human being has a life that begins with conception, when it becomes genetically distinct from its parent.
The issue of rights is even more complicated. As I wrote in my booklet on Catholic social teaching,
But according to the purely secular view of life, no one was "created" to do anything. My existence does not impose a moral responsibility on anyone else. Rights are negotiated through political and social structures, or else held by longstanding tradition (provided no one objects to them too strongly). No wonder that they can disconcertingly grow, shift, and mutate at a time when political and social structures (and cultural traditions) themselves have lost their stability. So really the question of rights comes down, like the specific question of the value of a human life, to whether God exists or not.