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A vindication of the rights of all



I grew up in the Netherlands in a time that seemed very peaceful. I was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when the existence and importance of fundamental rights and the underlying principles seemed quite self-evident. During this past year, many people asked me why I started ‘The Digital Period’, a project that examined the relationship between autonomy and technology by taking a closer look at period apps.

The direct cause was the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the precedent set by the Roe v Wade decision in 1973 establishing the constitutional right to abortion. But more importantly, it was what I felt the Dobbs case signified. I could feel the times changing. And that meant I needed to step up.

The Dobbs case and the overturning of Roe v Wade

On June 24, 2022, The Supreme Court of the United States decided that the American constitution did not confer a right to abortion. (Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 596 U.S. 2022) The Court decision meant that states were free to regulate abortion as they saw fit. Practically, it meant a defragmentation within the United States in terms of where you can and cannot get a legal abortion.

What stood out to me even more was the concurring opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas. He argued that not only we should reconsider the right to abortion, but also other rights based on substantive due process precedents. So in layman’s terms, this means that he wants to ‘correct the error’ established in precedents that protect rights such as same-sex marriage and access to contraception.

At the core, what is happening is an attempt to dismember the concept of universality.

I felt that this opinion reflected a worrying international trend that aims to take away rights that have been fought for by emancipation movements since the 18th century. While I do not live in the United States, I see similar attempts in my own country, the Netherlands, as well as worldwide.

At the core, what is happening is an attempt to dismember the concept of universality.

The dismemberment of ‘universality’ 

The idea that rights only really apply to some (often white upper-class men) and not to all is not new.

When Roe v Wade was overturned, I was reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, a book she wrote near the end of the 18th century. In it, Wollstonecraft makes a strong case against the inequality between men and women. In the book she ‘loudly demands justice for one half of the human race’ which in her opinion, if taken seriously, should lead to a revision of the French constitution.

Wollstonecraft’s book, published in 1792, starts with a directory letter to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord who was active in the higher levels of the developing French Revolution and minister of Foreign Affairs under Napoleon. She writes:

“If you are going to exclude women, without consulting them, from sharing in the natural rights of mankind, then defend yourself against accusations of injustice and inconsistency by proving that women don’t have reason. If you don’t do that, then this flaw in your New Constitution – the first constitution based on reason – will show for all times that man must in some way act like a tyrant, and that tyranny, in whatever part of society it raises its arrogant head, will always undermine morality.”

When rights stop being universal, they stop being meaningful.

When rights stop being universal, they stop being meaningful. They become arbitrary pieces of text that mean whatever those in power want it to mean. Humanity, equality and freedom cannot be cut up, edited and distributed as we see fit. This was true then and is true now. Again, as Wollstonecraft said, “tyranny, in whatever part of society it raises its arrogant head, will always undermine morality.”

The rise of hate

That the U.S. Supreme Court was able to overturn Roe v Wade was the result of a multi-year strategy of the radical right. They had loudly said they wanted to abolish the right to abortion. However, still these claims were not taken seriously, resulting in the situation we are in now.

I realised that this attack on universality is even more precarious in our digital age, where disinformation can spread on a scale we have not seen before. Cue to November 2023. The Dutch extreme radical party PVV, led by far-right politician Geert Wilders, has become the largest party in our parliament. They will possibly form the most right-wing government in Dutch history. His victory was enabled by misinformation and a focus on ‘tone’ (the media framed him as “Geert Milders”) over content.

In his party program, Wilders states that ‘[o]ur welfare state is under great pressure from non-Western people of colour who massively benefit from our benefits and other facilities’. He wants to ban the Quran and mosques. He wants to stop supporting Ukraine, and he believes that the only Palestinian state is Jordan.

Hate is ugly in all its forms. Antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism are rising. Unfortunately, the attack on the principle of universality is present across borders. When we zoom out, we see a repugnant and atrocious attack on Israel, a war in Gaza that makes the West forget the existence of humanitarian law, a failure to recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people, and the fading support for Ukraine – not just in the Netherlands. These events are all connected. Humanity in action means we need to stand up for one another, even when our own life is not at stake.

The value of worth

I started this project as a necessary personal antidote to move forward, to do something, a way to connect with people who want to make the world better for all, who bring joy and imagination. I also felt I needed to up my game, although I still feel that what I am doing is not enough. It was a small beginning. My hope is that many small acts will count when put together.

Collaboration with those who want us all to move forward has never (in my tiny life) been more important. It should not be confused with corroboration with those who only want to arbitrarily apply humanity, equality, justice or freedom. We cannot be free, unless all of us are.

Everything of worth might be defenceless; it is worth defending nonetheless.