I was raised as a racist white South African during the apartheid era in that country. It was a very disturbing experience when I first became aware of this fact in my late teens, and even after all these years it still feels quite shameful to admit it formally in so public a way as this. However, the sad truth is that I was a racist. Not an activist-type racist who went around doing horrible acts of violence against what we called ‘non-whites’, but rather just a passive racist who simply accepted the social norms regarding the separate and disproportionate treatment of the various races by the all-white government. Racism was the status quo in South Africa at the time, and as a child I experienced very little to challenge the idea that black people were inferior and somewhat less human than us whites. After all, it was the law of the land and it was acceptable to the majority of the white people with whom I came into contact with.

The reason I mention this is because I see strong correlations between my childhood acceptance of apartheid and the current Western approach to the topic of abortion. In Western culture there is a general consensus, within popular opinion at least, that abortion is just simply part of any modern society. The supporting belief, be it somewhat subconscious in nature, is that back in the 1960’s and 1970’s abortion was a controversial topic but the controversy is now long over and ‘those people who know all about this kind of issue’ came to a conclusion sometime back then. And furthermore, the conclusion was that abortion is a necessary element of a civilized society. I think that this is as far as the topic goes for most people. It’s therefore felt that this is not a matter to be debated anymore and so there is no inclination to explore the issue in any depth.

It’s hard to blame people for having this outlook. This was the same approach that most South African whites had towards the system of apartheid when I was a child. After all, abortion is now well entrenched within the legal structure of most Western countries, certainly the significant ones, just as apartheid was within the South African legal system at the time. There were also laws in South Africa to ensure apartheid’s protection and to limit opposition against it, just as we now have for abortion. The right to an abortion is the law of the land, and as with any law, you would have to be pretty radical to stand up and oppose something that is entrenched within your country’s legal system.

Besides, what is there to object to? Is there really a problem here? If you were to feel somewhat motivated to find out and decided to dig a little deeper into the abortion issue you would find that the majority of published articles and opinions will tell you that abortion is indeed necessary, and they will detail all the reasons why. And there are some good reasons put forward too - well reasons that are good in themselves anyway. For instance it is argued that abortion helps reduce unwanted pregnancies, especially among poorer people. These people are already so overwhelmed by poverty that anything that can be done to alleviate this must be good. Also, people will have abortions even if they are illegal, and historic figures show that unregulated (or backstreet) abortions often lead to the mother’s fatality as well. How can you argue against something that helps in both these two areas?

Most of the arguments that you will find against abortion seem to be from a religious point of view and thus have little impact on those who are secular in nature. It’s no use trying to tell someone that God disapproves of abortion if that person does not believe in God. Also, since most arguments that are in favor of abortion are secular in nature it seems most fitting to address this issue from a secular perspective.

In a secular context, the only valid setting for a discussion about morality is within the framework of rights. Fortunately there is a set of human rights that does have a broad level of acceptance and that can be used as a valid reference for analyzing the treatment of humans. I am referring here to the United Nations’ series of Agreements on Human Rights. Born mostly out of the horrific events of World War II, including the mass exterminations, the medical experimentation on humans, and the general treatment of select peoples as if they were less than human, this set of human rights agreements was drawn up to define an international set of values regarding the treatment and freedoms of all human beings. Since then these documents have stood as a reference against which the actions of nations and individuals can be measured and judged.

So let us take some time to explore the practice of abortion within the context of the universal human rights as set out in the various United Nations’ documents.

This is by no means a new approach, and the first counter argument to this is that the human embryo and fetus, also commonly referred to as an unborn child, cannot be classified as human and as such are not protected by human rights. Of course this statement is not without its own set of problems because if an embryo and fetus of human origin cannot be classified as human then what are they to be classified as? If we are then consequently forced to invent a new classification to cater for this argument, of say ‘less-human’ because they are deemed not fully human, then when does the ‘less-human’ being become a full human? And if the reason for setting the divide between ‘less-human’ and human is only for the sake of being able to deny human rights to these ‘less-humans’ then what grounds should be used to determine this line?

Actually there is a word for this type of thinking - it’s called discrimination. The moment you introduce the concept that it is possible to draw a line somewhere with regard to human life and say those on this side are ‘human’ in the sense that human rights apply and that those on that side are not, then this is discrimination. As a South African I know all about discrimination.

Already at this point there are a number of references to the United Nations’ human rights agreements that can be made with regard to the status of the unborn child and with regard to discrimination.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was drawn up in the late 1950’s to expand on Article 25(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it was recognized that children, because of their condition of youth, were especially vulnerable to abuse. The content of this declaration was reinforced in 1989 with the drawing up of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The preamble to both of these documents includes the following text “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”. These two documents therefore clearly state that a child has rights before it is born and that the rights laid out in the set of United Nations’ human rights agreements apply to unborn humans as much as they do to born humans.  Given the specific wording of “before as well as after birth”, any claim that an unborn human is not entitled to protection by these rights agreements is an insult to the intention and essence of these documents.

The United Nations agreements also have much to say against discrimination of any kind with regard to the applicability of human rights. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 16 states “Everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”. Everyone means well, everyone, and the word is explicitly used to be all inclusive in nature. Article 26 goes on to state that “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” The language is quite clear – any attempt to discriminate against any subset of humanity, for whatever reason or concept, with regard to human rights and the law is forbidden.

In fact the United Nations published a specific Comment document to deal with discrimination. It includes the following text: “While these conventions deal only with cases of discrimination on specific grounds, the Committee believes that the term "discrimination" as used in the Covenant should be understood to imply any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, and which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by all persons, on an equal footing, of all rights and freedoms.” Note the words “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground”. There is absolutely no place for discrimination of any kind when it comes to human rights.

Despite this clear direction for the United Nations human rights agreements there are still some people who refuse to accept this because they continue to argue that the pre-birth child is not fully human.

One of these counter arguments revolves around the idea that the embryo and fetus are really extensions or part of the mother’s body and thus this is more about the woman’s right to regulate and do what she wants with her own body parts. In this argument the embryo or fetus are not deemed independent entities and thus not separate humans as yet - consequently not entitled to any human rights. As an example, the Criminal Code of Canada (Section 223) quite shockingly only recognizes the crime of homicide if a child is killed once it has “completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother”. Thus it is deemed legally okay to kill a baby by any means as long as you make sure you do it before it fully exits the womb, even up to the very moment of birth as long as part of the child is still inside the mother. (Basically the child is just an undefined ‘thing’ until after birth, essentially less that an animal since animals at least have some form of legal protection - such is the law in Canada.)

This idea that an embryo or fetus is simply a part or an extension of the mother’s body, as if it were a tumor growth made up of the women’s cells is obviously a fallacy. The embryo is made up of an egg cell that separated from the mother’s ovary and was fertilized by a sperm cell that came from an external human source. It was this fertilized egg that then implanted itself on the mother’s uterus in order to get nutrition and a supportive environment. Test tube babies are made outside the mother’s womb altogether, and theoretically it would be possible to have a human grow from fertilized egg to birth completely outside the womb as long as a similar environment and nutritious source of blood could be provided for. I would not be surprised in the least if medical science, in the near future, was to offer exactly this as a surrogate service to women who battle to carry a pregnancy. It is obvious that both the embryo and the fetus are undeniably independent and separate instances of human life.

There are further arguments that the unborn are totally dependent on their mother while in the womb and thus are not independent lives, and thus have no rights. The fact however is that dependency cannot be an excuse for discrimination with regard to rights. We have addressed that issue already. Many other humans live very dependent lives, relying on other people or even machines in order to live, but this does not diminish their humanity in any way. There are also arguments that until the fetus has developed to the point of, for example feeling pain, then they cannot be classified as fully human. Once again this is a case of discrimination, and besides, people in a comatose state also do not appear to feel any pain, but this too does not make them any less human. All of these types of arguments come down to discrimination – denying human rights to a subset of human life.

One complexity that tends to make this debate emotional is that pregnancy does involve two human entities – the mother and the baby. What happens when human rights clash? For instance what if the mother does not want to be pregnant and makes claim to a right to get rid of the pregnancy?

In terms of competing rights one has to always weigh up the severity and consequences of each, and it is very rare that the act of killing another human, that is, denying them the right to life, is justifiable. So while it is true to say that a mother can claim the right to ‘terminate a pregnancy’, one also needs to consider the rights of her unborn child, especially given the abortion procedure that would then be a consequence of the mother’s claim. For this we once again turn to the best reference we have – the United Nations human rights agreements.

The list of human rights violations that occur during an abortion is disturbing. Besides the total disregard for the unambiguous reference to ‘before as well as after birth’ in the preamble to both documents on the Rights of the Child (as mentioned above and further reinforced by a further Comment document), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights contains the following Articles detailing relevant rights that are violated during an abortion (with my emphasis):

Article 16 - “Everyone shall have the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 26 - “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 6 - “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.

Article 7 - “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.

What more is there to say on the matter? You could argue that many countries, such as the United States for one, do not recognize these rights with respect to the unborn, but the question is more about what you think. Where do you stand on the issue of universal human rights? Are human rights really for all humans? Are you prepared to take them at face value without trying to compromise or adjust them to suit your existing beliefs? Is it worth considering that your views on this matter, like my childhood views about apartheid, might just be wrong?

Peter Queenan