In 1948, on the heels of world-wide conflict with and defeat of totalitarianism in Europe and Asia, the world community met and passed the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Many praised the Declaration as of enormous significance; through it the world seemed united against any infringement of the rights of human beings, even when such infringement is created by evil laws such as were passed in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. Thus, in its preamble the Declaration declares “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Against totalitarian oppression and in the name of us all, the very first article of the Declaration trumpets: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” and straight away we know the march of human rights will not be forward toward the horizon but circle until dizzy and collapse like a righteous army led by the Three Stooges. The problem is the connection of human rights to birth, and while it's arguable that the phrasing of the statement permits thinking that human beings prior to birth possess equal dignity and rights, unfortunately the UN consistently fails to read the statement this way.
On its face, and in conjunction with earlier documents, the statement ought to protect all human beings from conception; in other words, all human beings. The preambular ninth and 10th paragraphs of the 1989 UN “Convention on the Rights of the Child” make this plain by referring to the 1924 Geneva “Declaration of the Rights of the Child.” The Geneva Declaration stated (as quoted by the 1989 UN Convention): “'the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.'” In other words, the documents recognize the “child” exists prior to birth, and additionally, even declare a preferential bias in favor of children because of their “physical and mental immaturity.”
A robust rights regime seems ready then to protect the child beyond even its capacity to protect adults. And yet, as anyone who has observed the UN knows, the UN has been remarkably unable to protect and even uninterested in protecting the rights of unborn children. Indeed, the UN has followed the course of American civil law on abortion; in particular, its policies have mirrored the abortion rights regime in the US that successfully pitted the right to privacy against the right to (nascent) life. Thus it comes as no surprise to see the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) understand “making motherhood safer” to mean ensuring the access of increasing numbers of women to the “family planning” means necessary to reduce “unwanted pregnancies.” Document after document emphasize, in rhetoric identical to American reproductive rights rhetoric, the obstacle children present to women's empowerment, gender equality, and economic development.
It escapes me how the UN squares the commitment to the fundamental equal rights of us all, declared in its 1948 document, with its drive to eliminate poverty and gender inequality through a policy of pitting mother against child. I am much rather tempted to see the threat to children by appeals to rights as evidence of the severe limitation of rights to protect certain classes of people. Rights are claims by people for particular kinds of treatment, and obviously embryos, fetuses, and infants do not make such claims. Bluntly, they're out of luck. To bad for them, to be sure; but too bad for us as well. Not only does this reveal the obvious point that the rights revolution of the twentieth century is not as meaningful as we hoped, in the revelation of this severe limitation on rights, we are on notice that we've got our rights only as long as we can claim them.
Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.