Mal Fletcher
What is the Source of Human Rights?

This week, two issues have thrown basic human rights onto the front pages of major international newspapers.

In the US, President Bush returned from his Easter holiday to sign legislation which requires the re-insertion of a feeding tube which has been keeping Terri Schiavo alive.

Mrs Schiavo has been in vegetative state ever since the early 1990s, when a heart problem blocked the supply of oxygen to her brain. She relies on a feeding tube to survive.

The tube was removed last Friday at her husband's request and against the wishes of her parents. Mrs Schiavo has left no will, so the courts are left to decide whether or not she would wish to be left to die.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the leaders of the Britain's Anglican and Catholic communities declared that the UK needs to re-evaluate its legal limit on abortions.

At present, abortions can take place up to week 24 of pregnancy. Many want to see that limit dropped to below 20 weeks. Others, who see abortion as little more than infanticide, want to see abortion outlawed, except perhaps where the life of the mother is at stake.

Recent developments in ultra-sound technology have revealed graphic pictures showing 24-week old babies as real human beings.

In Britain alone, more than 180,000 abortions are performed every year. Of course, the issue affects a whole lot more people if you include the unborn!

One commentator, writing in The Times newspaper, noted that if the legal limit on abortions was lowered, 'The number of abortions that would be affected is small. If the limit were to be reduced from 24 to 20 weeks, about 3,000 abortions would be affected, 1.6 per cent of the total.' (Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor, March 21, 2005).

I cannot see anyone being so glib or off-hand if they were writing about 3,000 innocent people dying in a terrorist attack. (Just compare comments like these with the response to the events of 9/11, where almost exactly that number of innocents was killed.)

The Schiavo issue and that of abortion may seem unrelated, but they are not. Both demonstrate the importance of a right understanding when it comes to what are our basic human rights and where they came from in the first place.

Every year, the UN Commission on Human Rights receives approximately 20,000 complaints. Though there are often disagreements between various countries on what constitutes human rights, this Commission couldn't exist at all if many nations couldn't agree on some basic standards.

Where do we get this underlying sense of human rights? From where do we derive the rights themselves? Are there parameters beyond opinion polls that we might use in setting our moral compas?

Few in the media discussion on the issues above seem to want to look at this most basic of questions.

In 1791 Thomas Paine published one of the first books on human rights, called simply The Rights of Man. Paine would not have called himself a deeply religious man, but he was a deist. He believed in the reality of a supreme being simply because his reason, based on nature and experience, told him that such a being must exist.

Our rights, said Paine, were given to us way back at the time of our creation. They are bequests from our Maker.

Thomas Jefferson echoed this when he wrote that 'all men are created equal' and that they are 'endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights'.

This concept is far from popular in the mainstream discourse within secularised European cultures today. This may be because if we for a moment consider that a supreme being gave us our rights, two things will necessarily flow from this.

First of all, nobody can take those rights away; no one has the right to say, 'OK, that's enough of that, you don't have those rights any more.' Secondly, every one of us will answer to a higher authority for the way we use or abuse human rights.

What's more, if a higher power of some kind gave us our rights, abortion and euthanasia are much more than political or social issues; they are deeply spiritual. Mapping their impact on us as individuals let alone as a society will therefore require an objectivity and long-sightedness which the post-modern worship of opinion polls cannot provide.

Already, in the case of abortion, we see how society changes its mind from one generation to another. This is often the case with ultra-liberal causes. Yesterday's radicals become today's conservatives, as people realise the personal and socialo impact of their moral choices and gradually shift their positions.

Meanwhile, many thousands of lives have been impacted.

Western society has often championed the cause of those who rights have been downtrodden. Even today, the West speaks most vociferously on issues of injustice and the abuse of rights under totalitarian regimes.

Our commitment to human rights did not arise from nothing: it is a product of a religious worldview that has helped to shape our innate sense of morality and ethics as a culture.

This Judeao-Christians tradition holds that God demands that we eachdefend the rights of others, because those rights are his bequest. We are responsible to secure the rights of others, even foregoing our own rights in order to do so.

This is an idea Mar. Bush echoed after signing the US bill this weekend. 'In cases like this one,' he said, 'where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws, and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life.'

That's an approach we should take in every case, whether the issue is individual or society-wide. We should preserve a view of human life which transcends shifting popular opinion.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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