In modern political philosophy and newspeak and, well, just about everything, "human rights" is the watchword.
"Rights" are a relatively new invention of human thought, however. The beginnings of rights talk are in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan--an enormous and even more enormously influential work of 1660. Rights arise from the state of nature, the pre-political war of all against all. As I mentioned in the Arendt post, modern political philosophy tends to see men as a mass of individuals rather than as naturallly social.
In the state of nature, each individuals claims the "right" of self-preservation and can use any means necessary to achieve it. He uses his reason to achieve that preservation and, after his survivial is ensured, anything else he wills that he has the power to get. The purpose of government, then, becomes to protect our "rights" to whatever we will. That is, the state exists to ensure a space where men can exercise their wills. The perfect human life would be one in which all the individual's "rights" were fulfilled.
The point is not that we don't have rights. Catholic social talk is all about "the right to life"--yes?
The point is, however, that when we talk about human rights or the right to life, we have to realize that what, say, John Paul II meant by "rights" and what, say, Planned Parenthood means by "rights" are vastly different things. The difference is crucial: the former speaks of rights as the dignity that must be acknowledged in every human being as created by God; the latter speaks of rights as essentially dependent on human will--what I want is my right.
To be continued...