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