Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(1) February 2018

United Nations fails to use its own logic in defence of the unborn

Comment by Dr Philip Howard

The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has put forward a draft document for consultation to make fundamental changes to Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UNHRC proposals challenge the fundamental human right to life. The following is an abridged version of the response of the Catholic Medical Association to the proposal.

There are six foundational principles of the right to life under the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), upon which subsequent conventions, including the ICCPR, are based. These are that the right to life is inherent, inclusive, equal, inalienable, indivisible and universal.

The right to life is inherent to all living human beings by virtue of their humanity and membership of the human family. Article 6 of the ICCPR recognises the right to life of all human beings without distinction of any kind: ‘Every human being has the inherent right to life.’ The human embryo, formed at conception, is a genetically unique, living, individual from conception with a self-contained power to direct and organise his or her own development and formation as a human being. With the advent of ultrasound in obstetrics, there can be no doubt that unborn children are part of the human family. In utero photographs and videos are often the first images to appear in the family album and allow very early bonding.

Since the fundamental right to life is inherent it can neither be conferred nor removed by government or any external authority. The right to life is the basis for the enjoyment of all other human rights and is the foundation for freedom, justice and peace.

Inclusivity means that the rights refer to ‘everyone’ and ‘every person’ without discrimination. The UN Declaration does not make a distinction between human beings, who are all members of the human family and therefore all are human persons. The definition of some human beings as ‘non-persons’ is deeply problematic but has been a means of denying individuals their rights, often with a view to their elimination.

There are numerous historical examples of human beings who have been regarded as non-persons, who could then be eliminated, including, Native American Indians, slaves, aboriginal populations and Jews.
Sadly, unborn children, especially those who are disabled, are increasingly regarded as the modern equivalent of human ‘non-persons’.

‘Inalienability’ refers to rights that cannot be removed, destroyed, transferred or renounced even by the individuals themselves, their parents or society. ‘This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.’ (Article 6 of the ICCPR).

Nevertheless, the inalienability of the fundamental right to life is under threat by abortion and assisted suicide/euthanasia.

‘Equality’ means that no human beings are ‘more equal’ than others but that everyone has equal rights and dignity as members of the human family. Human rights cannot be predicated on the view that certain individuals are either superior or inferior to others, nor are they premised on the child being born. The act of being born does not confer rights, but rather the fact of being human. Finally, the inherent right to life is indivisible and cannot be sacrificed or denied in order to enhance the rights of others.

The fundamental human right to life which underlines the inherent dignity, worth and inalienable rights of all human beings, must be protected by law. Finally, human rights are universal to be upheld everywhere and at all times irrespective of culture.

The fundamental principle of the right to life of all human beings is breached in the case of abortion, foeticide, infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Nevertheless, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) is proposing fundamental changes to Article 6 with respect to abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. The UNHRC advocates widespread access to abortion services almost as of right for pregnant women. It states: ‘States’ parties must provide safe access to abortion to protect the life and health of pregnant women ... nor should states’ parties introduce humiliating or unreasonably burdensome requirements on women seeking to undergo abortion.’

‘Safe access to abortion’ would replace the state’s obligations to provide proper antenatal care for mothers and their unborn children with difficulties. Sadly one-in-five pregnancies in Britain now end in abortion, which deprives unborn children of their right to life and attacks the most defenceless human beings.

Decriminalisation would remove criminal sanctions against abortions for social reasons, foeticide, gender selective abortion, pregnancy reductions and ‘eugenic’ abortion. There would be less protection for women against coercive abortions in situations of domestic abuse, ethnic cleansing or genocide.

A denial of the rights of the unborn would further pave the way for the use of human embryos as experimental subjects, for the development of gene editing and germline therapies and commercial exploitation of embryo research. Nevertheless, in 2005, the UN General Assembly approved a declaration calling on Member States to ban all forms of human cloning, including therapeutic cloning, as being ‘incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life.’

The United Nations Charter is predicated on the right to life of human beings by virtue of the fact that they are members of the human family. The unborn are persons in so far as they are living human beings. The identity of the unborn is not only a subjective fact but is also objectively known to modern embryology. ‘The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined programme with its proper finality.’ The continuity of embryonic development ‘does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value.’ (as set out in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae, 2008). It is possible, by the use of reason, to discern ‘a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life; how could a human individual not be a human person?’ (Donum vitae, 1987; an instruction issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

There is no change in essential human nature or gradation in moral value as life is continuous from conception to natural death. From the first moment of existence human beings demand the unconditional respect that is due to their bodily and moral totality. Therefore, from the moment of conception, the human embryo has the dignity proper to a person and the rights of every human person must be recognised.

The UNHRC also advocates that ‘States’ parties must [or may allow/ should not prevent] medical professionals to provide medical treatment or the medical means in order to facilitate the termination of life of [catastrophically] afflicted adults, such as the mortally wounded or terminally ill, who experience severe physical or mental pain and suffering and who wish to die with dignity.’ This would endorse assisted suicide and euthanasia provided that States 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”.

The prohibition on ‘assisted dying’ is concisely stated in the Hippocratic Oath: ‘I will give no deadly drug to anyone, nor will I counsel such.’ Society must protect basic human rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to life itself and without which all the others would be meaningless.

The proposed changes to Article 6 by the UNHRC contradict the fundamental underlying principles that inspired the UN Declaration in 1948 and fail to fully recognise unborn children as having human rights as human beings, members of the human family and as human persons. Unborn children must not be reclassified as individuals who are less than human and therefore expendable in favour of the rights of others, science or society. The right to life must remain central to our understanding of human rights and international law. Medicalised killing in the form of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are logically inconsistent with the fundamental principles and philosophy of the UN Declaration and Covenants and the Hippocratic tradition.

The inalienable rights of all human beings, both before and after birth, must continue to be respected by the United Nations under Article 6. These fundamental human rights are inherent and derive from our human nature and membership of the human family and must be recognised and protected through the rule of law.

It remains the responsibility of international and domestic law to protect the vulnerable, especially in the earliest stages of life and to promote an ever more human civilization. •

Dr Philip Howard, MA GDipLaw LLM MA MD FRCP,
is President of the Catholic Medical Association (UK).


We are grateful to The Catholic Universe newspaper for permission to reproduce this article which was first published in October 2017