• Paul Stark

Human rights and abortion cannot co-exist



Dec. 10 is Human Rights Day. It marks the anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Most everyone today believes in human rights. Defenders of abortion are no exception—they typically consider abortion itself such a right. But the very concept of human rights actually poses a fatal difficulty for their view. Here's why.


Consider the basis for possessing human rights. What does an individual need to have in order to possess them? What's the criterion? The straightforward answer is that the criterion is being human or having a human nature. Humans have rights because of what they are. Indeed, the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explicitly defines human rights as "rights we have simply because we exist as human beings."


If that's true, then human rights are both universal and equal. They belong to all human beings because all humans are human. And they belong to all human beings equally because all humans share equally in their humanity.


As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, humans bear "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights … without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." The OHCHR says rights are "inherent," "universal," and "equal."


What does this mean for abortion? The science of embryology shows that human embryos and fetuses are living human organisms—members of the species Homo sapiens—at the embryonic and fetal stages of development. They are the same kind of being as each of us. We were once them.


If embryos and fetuses are human beings, and if all human beings have human rights, then unborn human beings have human rights.


Defenders of abortion (including, ironically, many at the United Nations) don’t want to accept that conclusion. They want to exclude unborn humans. But that means they need a criterion for human rights that unborn humans don't meet—something other than humanity. It could be a particular kind of physical appearance. It could be certain abilities or certain mental capacities. It could be that the attitudes or decisions of others determine whether someone has rights. Abortion advocates have argued for all of these.


Notice the implications if this approach is true. First, "human rights" becomes a highly misleading term. After all, that term suggests that there are rights we have simply by virtue of being human. And this view denies that. On this view, strictly speaking, human rights don't exist.


Second, rights become very exclusive. That's because any proposed criteria exclude not only unborn humans, but other humans too. If higher mental functions like self-awareness are key, for instance, then infants don't have rights. That's a conclusion that some of the world’s most academically distinguished and intellectually honest abortion defenders embrace. But we should know better than to think killing newborn babies is okay.


Third, this view of rights is fundamentally inegalitarian. Since we all differ from each other in the characteristics suggested as criteria for rights (we have greater or lesser cognitive ability, for example), we don’t have equal rights. Some of us have greater rights and some of us have lesser rights. Some are superior and some are inferior. This is a horrifying conclusion, but it's unavoidable once we reject shared humanity as the basis for value and rights.


These problems leave abortion defenders with a grave dilemma. They can believe in universal and equal human rights as articulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or they can stick to the idea that unborn humans are expendable. They can't consistently have both.


Human rights and abortion just cannot co-exist.


This article appears in the December 2020 issue of NRL News.

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