Friday, 16 February 2007

The Rights of the Unborn Child under International Law

What a tremendous couple of days we've had up here in Birmingham! Last night we had the first annual Pope John Paul II Evangelium Vitae lecture, given by Fr John Fleming of Campion College, NSW, Australia, on the theme "The Rights of the Unborn under International Law". The previous evening in the University, a speaker who was doing and Introduction to Marxism attracted a mere 15 people, so I was getting worried having booked a sizeable lecture theatre for our lecture. However, I was pleased by the 100 people - roughly half of them students - who came along, as well as doctors and other people associated with the Catholic Chaplaincy.

After introductions Fr Fleming began his fluent, clear, precise and concise delivery of his presentation on the topic. In about 45 minutes he managed to make a rationale for his two major points: that the Declaration on Human Rights and associated United Nations texts - upon which International Human Rights law is based - recognise the rights of the unborn, and that personhood - which is a philosophical concept informed by science - begins at conception.

In the first half of the lecture, Fr Fleming dealt with the documentation of the United Nations. His reasoning went like this:
1. Human rights are the basis for international law, and all nations are subject to that law without distinction.
2. Human rights are 'inalienable' - this is, cannot be taken away, or even given away by an individual - and 'inviolable' and pertain to 'all members of the human family'.
3. While it is received wisdom that the United Nations declarations do not defend the unborn, it is not so and indeed there is a Declaration of the rights of the unborn doing the rounds of nation state members at the moment.
4. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
5. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
6. 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 (Declaration on the Rights of the Child 1959).
7. Parallel legislation regarding capital punishment stipulates that a woman cannot be put to death while pregnant, because it would take the innocent life of the child (some infer that it means that, in order to safeguard the well-being of an unborn child, the woman should not labour under pain of the threat of capital punishment at all.)
8. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance, and that all children, before or after birth or whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the social protection of their family, society and the State without any discrimination.

In the second half of the lecture, Fr Fleming spoke about the beginning of life and personhood based upon the best scientific data available at the moment. His basic thesis was to show that the human embryo, whether brought into being by sexual reproduction or otherwise, and whether inside or outside the womb of the woman, is a separate and distinct, living human individual; will progress through all the stages of development in a continuum, through the embryonic and foetal stages, to birth, unless it dies or is killed; is a distinct and autonomously developing human being, whose right to survival depends upon a protected, hospitable and interpersonal environment that provides life sustenance in the form of nutrition, hydration and oxygen - the basic rights of every human being at all stages of life.
In order to demonstrate this thesis Fr Fleming showed:
1. The newly formed embryo is not some featureless bundle of cells, but that the human body is already shaped at the moment of conception. Indeed the sides of the embryo which will be the back and head are not left to later development but are already distinguishable at conception.
2. The embryo communicates with the mother from conception using chemical substances to signal to the mother's body that it needs to get ready for its implantation.
3. The concept of personhood is a philosophical concept which is based upon scientific understanding. Sometimes scientists will change their understanding of personhood to suit their own ends. Eg Embryo research scientists hold 14 days as the threshold above which they see the embryo as becoming human. But a different level is used for abortions.
4. Denying personhood involves denying rights. The law then becomes arbitrary in apportioning rights (such as in the past slaves had no rights as they were not acknowledged as persons under the law).

Fr Fleming ended the lecture with a reference to the teaching of Domum Vitae stating that "the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception."

After the lecture the audience raised a number of points. Some were from the stalwart pro-lifers who were present, but it was interesting that a number of students were there who came from different backgrounds - some from law, from philosophy, theology and above all medicine - and with different viewpoints. But what was notable was the openness of everyone to hear Fr Fleming and to dialogue with him. There were no acrimonious interventions at all. This contrasts with my memory of being a student in the 1980s where these life issues really got the adrenalin flowing as well as the rhetoric. I was interested to learn more about something I knew nothing about before, and that is NaProTechnology, which is a new form of dealing with infertility in women, which is very successful, and is totally in accordance with the teaching of the Church, but which is getting very little support in Britain, unlike IVF.

It is certainly very pleasing to have been able to bring life issues into the public forum within the University. It was important that this did not seem to be a minority interest, so I deliberately did not hold it in the Catholic Chaplaincy nor even in the multi-faith Chaplaincy. The lecture was in the large lecture theatre in the University's School of Education. I'm sure this helped people who were coming from outside the chaplaincy to feel that they were not threatened or overawed by their environment. Now all we have to do is plan next year's lecture and try to increase interest throughout the University.

Fr Richard will do his own post tomorrow on the lecture and he'll be able to share some of the photos...

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