On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, therefore, marks its 60th anniversary and provides us an opportunity to examine some themes in the Declaration which deserve special emphasis.
The Declaration asserts, “[E]veryone has the right to life” (Article 3). This, of course, is the most fundamental right, since no other rights can be exercised if one does not exist. Yet this insight of common sense is easily forgotten these days. The Secular Humanist Manifesto II (1973), for example, lists many “rights,” including “the right to suicide,” but not the “right to life”!
The Universal Declaration, furthermore, refers to human rights as “equal and inalienable,” and declares that human beings have “inherent dignity” (Preamble). This is a key theme. In other words, governments can neither bestow nor remove human dignity from a human being. Governments, rather, exist to preserve and protect rights that are inherent, that is, rights which reside by definition within the human being precisely because he or she is a human being and not because he or she has earned or been awarded those rights by some outside entity.
Article 6 of the Declaration says that everyone has the right to be recognized as a person before the law. This, of course, was directly contradicted by the holding of the US Supreme Court, Roe vs. Wade, when it said, “[T]he word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn.”
In articles 18 and 19, the Universal Declaration asserts the right of each person to freedom of religion and opinion on various matters, and the right to exercise that religion and express that opinion. Later in the Declaration, however, Article 30 rightfully states, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” For example, if I claimed to practice a religion that required me to kill another human being every Sunday as part of the worship service, although I have freedom of religion, I do not have the right to destroy the life of the other human being.
This applies also to abortion. The right to life, which is inherent and incapable of being annulled by any government, may not be trampled upon in the name of religious freedom. It is a favorite position of the defenders of abortion to claim their “right to believe what they want” and to “have their own opinion” about the status and value of the child in the womb. But the right of someone to live cannot fall simply because someone else’s belief does not recognize that right.
Sixty years after this Universal Declaration, let us renew our efforts to bring all nations to a strong respect for each person’s inherent rights, most fundamentally the right to life.