‘Potes­tas Ma­ter­nalis’

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

right to dis­pose of his fam­ily as he thought fit. A new-born baby es­pe­cially if fe­male, was of­ten placed on the ground right after birth by the mid­wife and, as the mother watched help­lessly, the fa­ther de­cided whether to pick up the new born or not. If the fa­ther walked away it meant that the child was re­jected and it was ei­ther left to die through ex­po­sure, or thrown on the city thrash heap to be rav­aged by wild an­i­mals or picked up by pro­cur­ers for pimp­ing ser­vices pro­vided by the age of thir­teen (or less). This power which resided in the fa­ther, the Patria Potes­tas, in Ro­man fam­ily law, was the power that the male head of a fam­ily ex­er­cised over his chil­dren and his more re­mote de­scen­dants in the male line, what­ever their age, as well as over those brought into the fam­ily by adop­tion. It was ab­so­lute and since male chil­dren were pre­ferred over fe­male chil­dren, it lead to a gen­der im­bal­ance in Rome and since the Ro­mans were in­tent on pur­su­ing the he­do­nist cul­ture of de­bauch­ery and arena spec­ta­cles, this soon started to worry Em­peror Au­gus­tus that the Ro­man birth rate was plung­ing with the re­sult that he hur­ried to en­act laws to in­crease the birth rate, which laws were largely ig­nored even by him­self!

It was only the rise of Chris­tian­ity in Rome that re­versed this cruel and sub­jec­tive use of human be­ings by in­tro­duc­ing the con­cept of human dig­nity and by defin­ing the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the core con­cept of the fam­ily as com­posed of the du­ties of the mother and the fa­ther to­wards each other and the chil­dren. It was Chris­tian­ity that pushed this idea of in­di­vid­ual human dig­nity, a per­sonal dig­nity as a re­sult of be­ing human and which even­tu­ally broke asun­der the con­cept of the Patria Potes­tas. St Paul, in his let­ter to the Eph­e­sians, makes clear the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of hus­bands and wives to­wards each other at a time where the cul­ture did not rec­og­nize such mu­tual re­spect and self-giv­ing.

To­day, so­ci­ety is re­vert­ing back to the times of Ro­man cul­ture as it re­jects Chris­tian­ity and its ideas. Un­der the guise that the woman is re­spon­si­ble for her own body (she is), she is al­lowed to dis­pose of the pres­ence of an­other human be­ing within her, no ques­tions asked. The Patria Potes­tas has been re­placed with the Mater Potes­tas! As an as­sum­ing lawyer who de­cided to ab­ro­gate sci­ence and rea­son for him­self re­cently told me, many ar­gue that the growing em­bryo in­side them is just a bunch of cells, not re­al­iz­ing that they them­selves are also in the fi­nal anal­y­sis just a bunch of cells, there­fore they them­selves may be dis­posed of by so­ci­ety as it so wishes. Oth­ers ar­gue that al­though they them­selves are against killing em­bryos and foe­tuses, they dare not force their opin­ion on oth­ers who think dif­fer­ently in or­der to con­serve per­sonal free­dom! This ar­gu­ment for­gets that we are all re­spon­si­ble for the well-be­ing of oth­ers and that the least the state can do is to pro­tect the help­less and de­fence­less against the strong and pow­er­ful. By ab­scond­ing from this re­spon­si­bil­ity, the state re­turns us to the pre-Chris­tian pe­riod where human life was worth ab­so­lutely noth­ing!

It is up to us to strug­gle to main­tain the con­cept of human dig­nity for all human be­ings from con­cep­tion till nat­u­ral death as a fore­most pri­or­ity. It is up to us to re­main firm in what rea­son and sci­ence it­self both show us, to do well to oth­ers as you wish oth­ers to do good to you. There will al­ways be those out for a good time who will be­lit­tle human dig­nity and throw away two thou­sand years of cul­ture which has hu­man­ized the world. This is not a lost bat­tle, but it surely is an on­go­ing bat­tle. The Coun­cil of Europe Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly in Stras­bourg re­cently voted to make sur­ro­gacy il­le­gal all over Europe, trump­ing the ef­forts of those who wanted to in­tro­duce this abom­inable prac­tice against the dig­nity of women and chil­dren, which in­di­vid­u­als also ex­ist in our coun­try. Vig­i­lance against loss of human dig­nity is con­stant, and like the North­ern Star, it should spur us al­ways to be re­lent­less in our quest. The right to life is rec­og­nized as the fore­most right with re­spect to the hi­er­ar­chy of human rights and the state ought to be care­ful that it is so pre­served. Oth­er­wise as the Ro­man Em­pire fell away, so will our so­ci­ety!


Dr As­ciak is Se­nior Lec­turer II in the In­sti­tute of Ap­plied Sci­ence at MCAST

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