Human Rights & the Right to Life: Reconsidering Conventional Human Rights Activism
by John Whitehead
Respecting people’s human rights should go hand in hand with upholding the consistent life ethic. The concept of “human rights” broadly means those conditions that people can legitimately claim as necessary to living a decent human life. Life itself is one of these conditions, and many human rights documents recognize a right to life. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (Article 3).
In principle, the wide-ranging respect for life practiced by advocates of the consistent life ethic should be perfectly compatible with human rights activism. In practice, however, contemporary human rights activism can often promote the destruction of life that consistent life ethic advocates work to stop. We should recognize this conflict and change how we look at the practice of human rights advocacy today.
The UN Human Rights Committee & The Right to Life
Last fall, we witnessed a significant example of how human rights activism, as conventionally practiced, can promote killing. The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued, on October 30, a lengthy “comment” on how to interpret Article 6—which deals with the right to life—of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 states that “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” While abortion is not explicitly mentioned, the article, which permits the death penalty under highly qualified circumstances, says that “Sentence of death…shall not be carried out on pregnant women.”
The recent comment interpreting Article 6 contained some very positive applications of the right to life: for example, it identifies the maintenance of nuclear weapons as contrary to that right. Nevertheless, the comment also adopted the grotesque position that respecting the Covenant requires securing access to abortion. It says that states party to the Covenant must not violate “the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant.” The comment then elaborates:
Thus, restrictions on the ability of women or girls to seek abortion must not, inter alia, jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering which violates article 7 [article 7 of the Covenant being “prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,”] discriminate against them or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy.
States parties must provide safe, legal and effective access to abortion where the life and health of the pregnant woman or girl is at risk, or where carrying a pregnancy to term would cause the pregnant woman or girl substantial pain or suffering, most notably where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or is not viable…
States parties should not introduce new barriers and should remove existing barriers that deny effective access by women and girls to safe and legal abortion, including barriers caused as a result of the exercise of conscientious objection by individual medical providers.
The comment also urges states to “prevent the stigmatization of women and girls seeking abortion.”
Let’s consider the full meaning and significance of this passage: the UN Human Rights Committee’s comment is affirming abortion as morally acceptable. Nowhere is any right to life of the unborn child acknowledged. The words “unborn,” “preborn,” “baby,” and even “fetus” don’t appear in the comment (the comment does at least condemn infanticide and reaffirm the prohibition on executing pregnant women). Justifying access to abortion on the grounds of “mental pain or suffering” or “substantial pain or suffering” is about as subjective and elastic as such rationales get. The principle could be used to justify abortion for essentially any reason. Moreover, the passage totally ignores how much pain and suffering to women abortion can cause, if they are pressured or coerced into abortion or later regret their decision. The condemnation of “stigmatization” suggests abortion should be not merely legal but socially acceptable. Finally, the comment asserts that not even respect for doctors’ conscientious objections to abortion should stand in the way of abortion access. In short, the passage cannot be explained away as, say, a purely pragmatic effort to avoid women dying from illegal, unsafe abortions. The passage supports abortion.
The comment’s treatment of assisted suicide is somewhat better, as it merely accepts the existence of this practice without endorsing it. After encouraging suicide prevention, especially among “vulnerable” people, the comment states
States parties that allow medical professionals to provide medical treatment or the medical means in order to facilitate the termination of life of afflicted adults, such as the terminally ill, who experience severe physical or mental pain and suffering and wish to die with dignity, must ensure the existence of robust legal and institutional safeguards to verify that medical professionals are complying with the free, informed, explicit and, unambiguous decision of their patients, with a view to protecting patients from pressure and abuse.
Such a position still falls well short of the necessary condemnation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Reconsidering Conventional Notions
The Human Rights Committee’s emphatic support of abortion and tacit support of assisted suicide is unusual in how blatantly it inverts the right to life the Committee is supposedly interpreting. In general, however, support of such killing by groups that claim to be protecting human rights is sadly common. Many mainstream human-rights-advocacy organizations have come to advocate for abortion access. The Consistent Life Network has recorded how Amnesty International gave up its prior position of neutrality on abortion and switched to supporting abortion access. Amnesty was even involved in the—tragically successful—campaign to legalize abortion in Ireland. Human Rights Watch and the aid organization Doctors without Borders have taken similar positions.
This giant moral blind spot of human rights advocacy groups is even more striking when one considers that many nations who would be judged as having bad records on human rights (as conventionally understood) are often opposed to abortion or assisted suicide.
Saudi Arabia, for example, is justly condemned for its extraordinary repression of its citizens, executing people for a wide variety offenses. Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian legal code shows greater respect for the unborn than those of many western democracies or many human rights groups’ ideologies. Abortion is illegal in Saudi Arabia, with exceptions made for the life or physical health of the mother. Egypt, which also has a bad human rights record, goes even further, allowing abortion only to save the mother’s life. Iran, which has the dubious distinction of being one the leading executioners, also legally restricts abortion, allowing it only to save the mother’s life or in cases of fetal impairment. Pro-life activists might criticize such laws on various grounds—the Iranian exception for fetal impairment seems notably ableist, for example—but these laws nevertheless reflect greater concern for protecting unborn humans than the legal interpretations of a UN committee dedicated to championing human rights.
Consider also the example of China, which is rightly reviled by human rights activists and pro-life activists alike for its repressive policies, especially its coercive, abortion-promoting population control. Even China, however, bans suicide, including assisted suicide and euthanasia. In this respect, even one of the world’s most notorious human rights offenders protects lives that the UN Human Rights Committee and many democratic western nations that might endorse conventional human rights activism, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, or parts of the United States, don’t.
My point, I hasten to add, is not that we shouldn’t criticize the human rights records of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, China, or similar nations—we clearly should. As I write this, the Saudi government continues to cause death and suffering both at home and abroad through its war in Yemen. China is currently carrying out a brutal crackdown on its Uighur ethnic minority. We shouldn’t support the flawed, compromised understanding of conventional human rights groups or the no-less flawed understanding of these repressive states. The goal should be laws and public policies that respect lives of all, from conception to natural death. Consistent life ethic advocates should study the examples of countries such as the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Malta, which ban abortion and the death penalty and do not allow assisted suicide.
We should, however, recognize how flawed the conception of “human rights” held by international agencies and NGOs and many western democratic nations is. We should direct our critique equally to these groups and nations and those repressive ideologies and nations that violate human rights as conventionally understood.
Consistent life ethic advocates need to reject the tendency to view contemporary liberal-democratic views of human rights, as embodied by certain western nations and groups such as Amnesty International or the UN Human Rights Committee, as a model that other nations and groups must follow. Replacing the violent repression of a Saudi Arabia or China with the violent permissiveness of the United States or the Netherlands isn’t progress. Let’s work to realize a complete, consistently pro-life understanding of human rights across all nations, ideologies, and cultures.