Why do humans deserve human rights?
13 MINUTE READ
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a document drafted and proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 in consultation with representatives from different backgrounds around the world. It aims to create a common standard of fundamental human rights to be protected. It recognises the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” 1 which should be taught and promoted to obtain universal recognition and observance, to be protected by the rule of law in all member states and territories under their jurisdiction.1
The Declaration proceeds through 30 different articles covering various human rights and their implementations. The rights covered include: the right to life, liberty and security; to safety from torture; to recognition and equal treatment before the law; freedom of movement within a country; freedom of marriage; freedom of choice of employment; freedom of thought, opinion and expression; freedom of choice of accessible education; and freedom to participate in culture, art and scientific advancement. The declaration also demands a standard of food, clothing, medical care and social services to allow for adequate health and wellbeing of the individual and their family. It demands a right to rest and leisure, accessible education, and freedom of parental choice of education. It demands the right to nationality and the right to seek asylum.1
But why do humans deserve these rights in the first place? Why are the “barbarous acts” 1 that the United Nations (UN) condemns in this declaration wrong? Why are human beings deserving of such value and respect? What characteristics do humans have that are deserving of such reverence? Of what origin are humans that they deserve to be honoured?
One argument for why humanity should be given such high regard is because we have won over nature. We are the ultimate apex predator and we have gained dominance in the game of survival of the fittest. However, if our value is merely in how well we dominate other species, surely we should continue this behaviour over other animals and nature in general and dominate the physically and mentally weak amongst us. Or is the value of humanity due to our intelligence or the marvellous cultures and religions we have built?
Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights states:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 1
This seems to be a subjective statement without objective reasoning behind it.
Similarly, the Australian Human Rights Commission states:
“Every person has dignity and value. One of the ways that we recognise the fundamental worth of every person is by acknowledging and respecting their human rights.”2
This again is just a statement of belief. No reasoning is given for this to be a fact.
As Christians, we understand why these statements are true. We are God’s reflection, and He has given us a special place in creation.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 ESV)
“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” (Psalm 8:4-6 ESV)
God tells us that the value of man is in two properties. First, man was made in the image of God. Second, God placed him in the position of honour in which he sits.
Furthermore, we know that God cares for every one of us down to the hairs on our head and that he has planned out our lives even before we came into existence.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:29-31 ESV)
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Ps 139:13-16 ESV)
So human value lies in how man was created and that God has stated that humans are valuable. Though Christians have a different means of getting here, we come to the same conclusion as most humanist philosophers and ethicists, though I would argue with much more objective backing for saying so.
“We are God’s reflection, and He has given us a special place in creation.”
Once we have established that a human being has value, we need to ask what makes a human, human? To put it another way, what makes someone a member of the human race? When does a human begin and when does a human end? In Scripture we see that the concept of your personhood begins before your birth, “In your book were written… the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Ps 139:16). And that personhood doesn’t end but rather as the physical body dies, the soul or person continues on for eternity. John 5:24 (ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Some secular ethicists, such as Professor Peter Singer (bioethicist), make the claim that personhood is seen in “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness.”3 It is this determination of personhood, and hence value, that leads to some serious differences in medical ethics between Christians and Professor Singer. Singer gives a human value based on what we can do with our mind, but God gives us value based on our humanity alone. Singer thus concludes that some humans are not worthy of protection, and further leads to the conclusion that some, such as infants and the disabled, should be killed:
“Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living…to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.”
Extreme views like this show the dangers of placing human value on what someone can do rather than who God says they are.4
As a GP Obstetrician, this difference in morality is something that I have struggled with at times, especially in a secular world where we are told that abortion is about a woman’s choice, not about the death of a human fetus. A woman’s right is said to trump the rights of the future baby and the father of the child. Even Hippocrates, who didn’t share our faith, found abortion in opposition to divine law.
“I swear by Apollo the physician…that according to my ability and judgement I will keep this Oath and this contract…I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion. In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.” Hippocrates5
I do find, however, these cases of electing for abortion to be easier to parse through my ethical filter than some other, more murky cases. We deliberately screen for Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) in first trimester screening and non-invasive prenatal testing in order to offer abortion to women who have a Trisomy 21 fetus. These children will be born with disabilities that will affect them their whole lives, and this is how we justify their termination. But a person with Down syndrome is no less valuable in the eyes of God – they are made in God’s image and have been formed in their mother’s womb by the hands of God. We don’t want to abort these babies for their comfort but rather to avoid our own discomfort.
The cases I find most difficult are those that are incompatible with ongoing life, such as congenital heart disease which cannot be fixed, or severe hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or those babies without a brain (anencephaly). These children, if left in the womb until term, will usually not survive longer than hours to weeks. On this basis, my colleagues in maternal fetal medicine will routinely offer abortion in these circumstances, perhaps hoping to relieve the woman of the difficulties of further pregnancy and term delivery of a child who won’t survive. And yet, even in these circumstances, I personally feel the same call from God, that these are his children, they have been created in his image and are deserving of our compassion. But that is easy for me to say, I have never had to personally go through a pregnancy with my wife awaiting the inevitable death that will come after birth.
“I personally feel the same call from God, that these are his children, they have been created in his image and are deserving of our compassion”.
So with the permission of a friend of mine, I would like to finish this article with the words of one who has experienced this very grief with his daughter being born with anencephaly. In his grief you can see the heart of a father and the Heavenly Father shining through.
“It was in that moment, that we were told that our baby girl had anencephaly and that she was destined to die shortly after birth. A king of Rohan once bemoaned that, ‘No parent should have to bury their child’. And yet, here we are… But it is not all doom and gloom. We never lost the sense of wonder and awe at the fact that our child was alive. Even before we were told of our child’s diagnosis, we were in awe of the miracle of life where two gametes meet together and produce a tiny human made in our own image – a child who is ultimately made in the image of God. For me, it was her heartbeat that filled me with the greatest awe and wonder. The regular ‘dook dook dook dook dook’ that I heard at every ultrasound and every time I placed my ear against my wife’s belly.
Not too long ago, I was aimlessly flicking through different channels on TV. I happened to stumble across an ABC documentary on foster children and the feelings of hurt and rejection that they wrestle with over the course of their lives. In this program, they interviewed a social worker who made an incredibly profound statement. She said, ‘At the end of the day, all that these children want to know was that they were loved, even before they were born.’
This is the principle that we have sought to live out over the past several months. We had come to the realisation that we had been given an opportunity to love a child in all her brokenness. And we have sought to unconditionally love our baby girl despite her tragic, life limiting disability. We are glad that we have done so, as we were able to experience glimpses of the child that we could have gotten to know in the absence of her disorder.
Now a lot of people have asked me, ‘How are you doing? Are you okay?’ I think the answer to this question can be best summarised by a letter that I wrote to my daughter.”
It’s your daddy here!! I just wanted to write a letter to let you know how much I adore and love you.
Our hearts were filled with joy at your conception, throughout the different stages of your pregnancy and at your birth. It has been such a joy to get to know you. To hear your heartbeat, to witness you sucking your thumb and wriggling around in your mummy’s womb. To speak to you, sing to you and to hear your kick/punch responses to our doting sounds. We were absolutely smitten with you when you were born. Tears flowed like rivers when I first set my eyes on you shortly after your birth. You are the love of my life. My darling child. My beautiful ‘bao bei’. You have never and will never be rejected by us. Your mummy and daddy love you as you are.
Of course, our hearts were filled with great sorrow at the revelation of your anencephaly diagnosis. It grieves our hearts that your life was so brief and that your experience of this life was ‘hevel’ (smoke/vapour in Hebrew). If it were up to me, I would gladly trade years and decades of my life to give you the opportunity to live, grow and develop. Ultimately, this is what weighs on our hearts the most – the fact that we will not be able (in this life, at least) to witness you grow, develop and mature into an adult woman with your own character, traits and personality. My heart mourns that I will not be able to: comfort you when you injure yourself; hold you when you are scared; share with you various insights I have gained of God and life; laugh with you as we behold comical scenarios; marvel at your various life milestones and achievements; or have the opportunity to witness you marry the man that your heart desires and have children of your own (if that is what your heart desires).
But our grief gives way to hope. Our prayer for you is that you always remain in your saviour, Christ Jesus. Our hope is that as you abide in Him, you will partake in both His death and His resurrection. We offer up your life to our God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Go with God little Eva. He will treat you far better than we could ever do. May the suffering that you have experienced in this brief, hevel life be but a light and momentary affliction compared to the eternal weight of glory that is promised for you as you abide in Christ Jesus. My hope is that God would stay true to His word that the last shall be first in the kingdom of God. Through no fault of your own, you have been placed last in this life (in the eyes of this world). But do not despair, for your God loves you and desires to offset all the lack that you have experienced in your brief, hevel life. May God bless you with His abundant riches in the life everlasting. My prayer is that, when I finally gather to take my place in the throne room of God, I would see you at a distance sitting in the place of honour at the right hand of God. If I could but see that, then my heart would be full.
We have sought to honour your life throughout. It is our privilege to know you and to have been able to provide shelter and care for you both in your mother’s womb and after your birth. We are thankful that you were able to be born full term and that we were able to register your birth and to name you.
You now have a place in our collective family histories. We will remember you and honour you as a beloved family member. We love you so much. And we look forward to the day when we can sit together, conversing with merry hearts as we partake of the banquet feast in God’s kingdom.
Dr Nathan Combs Dr Nathan Combs is a Christian, husband, father of three, District Medical Officer (rural generalist with subspecialty in obstetrics) working in Kununurra, Western Australia. He says that the most privileged part of his work is delivering babies into the world.
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- United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [Online]. [cited 2021 September 6th. Available from: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
- Australian Human Rights Commission. An Introduction to Human Rights. [Online]. [cited 2021 September 7th. Available from: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/introduction-human-rights.
- Singer P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press; 1993.
- Singer P. Peter Singer FAQ. [Online]. [cited 2021 September 7th. Available from: https://petersinger.info/faq/.
- Hippocrates. Greek Medicine – The Hippocratic Oath. [Online].; 2012 [cited 2021 September 6th. Available from: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html.
- Booth K. What I learned about disability and infanticide from Peter Singer. [Online].; 2018 [cited 2021 September 6th. Available from: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-i-learned-about-disability-and-infanticide-from-peter-singer.