Thursday 18 September 2008

The threat to fundamental human rights in Europe

Following the atrocities of World War II, the international community attempted to restore peace and justice to the world. Not only did they bring the sword of justice on the heads of those who attacked the dignity of the human person, but they also articulated fundamental shared values, which would serve as a basis for the future protection of every member of the human family. The United Nations was assembled and produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which assured individuals of their fundamental rights regardless of age, sex, race or disability. Western countries were unanimous in their adoption of the declaration, and breathed a sigh of relief in the knowledge that they were united in defence of, amongst other things, their inherent right to life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

In his article entitled ‘Human Rights Pitted Against Man,’ author Jakob Cornides (who spoke at SPUC's national conference earlier this month) indicates that a new era of rights is dawning upon us. The rights articulated in the UDHR and most fundamentally known to us are under threat. Jakob Cornides devotes this paper to examining the nature and extent of that threat.

Cornides identifies the current threat to human rights as the result of a subtle power shift to unelected international bodies seeking to advance a new doctrine of human rights. His article addresses two examples of this emerging ideology through reference to: (1) a Legal Opinion published by a Network of Experts on Fundamental Rights set up by the European Union (EU), and (2) a decision handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Tysiac v Poland. While the Legal Opinion challenges the freedom of those in the medical profession to conscientiously object to certain practices like abortion, both examples take unfounded steps towards establishing abortion as a new 'human right.'

However, according to a classical conception of rights, which Cornides upholds, it is not possible to advance a new doctrine of human rights. On this view, basic human rights have to hold in all times and places. There can be no such a thing as a basic human right that thwarts a natural human function, as occurs in abortion – especially when a right to abortion would so directly undermine the right to life. Nor can our list of human rights expand. Cornides draws on ancient authors such as Cicero in defence of this assertion. His current concern is that we are witnessing a concerted attempt on the international stage to elicit a twofold shift in the conception of rights: first, a shift in the criteria for what constitutes a right, which means that the list of rights is ever-expanding and changing; and second, an abandonment of a natural hierarchy of rights, which weakens, amongst other things, the logical primacy of the right to life.

An example of this shifting doctrine of human rights is present in the Network's Legal Opinion, which raises concerns about the role of conscientious objection clauses in concordats. (The Opinion is solely responding to conscientious objection clauses in concordats with the Holy See, specifically a draft concordat between Slovakia and the Holy See). The Opinion asserts that clauses which grant a subjective right to medical practitioners to abstain from medical procedures (such as abortion) would: (1) deny women lawful access to abortions, and (2) discriminate between medical practitioners according to their religious faith, or lack thereof. Cornides explains the genesis of the Network’s Opinion and responds to its concerns, which he considers to be pre-emptive and replete with numerous contradictions. He also exposes the Network's manipulation of basic terms, its omission of important facts, its inadequacies in research and misdiagnosis of the issue. Cornides reveals the Network’s Opinion to be anything but a reliable exposition of the truth of the matter. While recognising that this Opinion has no legal force, Cornides argues that documents such as this have significant political influence on the international stage.

The case of Tysiac v Poland (Application 5410/03), hailed by pro-abortion activists as a breakthrough, is a somewhat different example of an attempt to force the recognition of a right to abortion. It is an attempt, Cornides says, “… not openly, but through the back door.” The decision of the ECHR is serious, because unlike the Network of Experts, it is harder to ignore.

In this case, the plaintiff sought an abortion fearing that the strain of her pregnancy would further deteriorate her already severely impaired eyesight. Despite these risks, the plaintiff was denied access to the procedure by several doctors because there were other ways to avoid the risk – such as delivery by caesarean section. However, when Tysiac's child was born and her eyesight rapidly deteriorated some six weeks later, she took action against her medical practitioners. The Polish courts decided that the doctors involved had no case to answer, but unsatisfied, Tysiac went to the ECHR. In the end, the ECHR effectively disciplined Poland for failing to ensure access to legal abortion services. The fact that the abortion was not lawful under Polish law was disregarded. As was the fact that “eight specialists had unanimously declared that they had not found any threat or any link between the pregnancy and delivery and the deterioration of the applicant’s eyesight” (Dissenting opinion of Judge Borrego Borrego, para 10). Cornides explores a whole range of issues with regard to this case, including the attempt by an international court to trump domestic law. He also shows how, through failing to apply the law to the facts in question, the courts of law which once brought the sword of justice on the heads of those who demeaned the dignity of the human person are now bringing it to fall on the heads of those who uphold human dignity and seek to protect human life.

Cornides shows how this recent attack on human rights has been launched by highly influential international bodies, who assume authority that they do not have. He does so in a context where abortion is still considered a crime in most countries and is fundamentally contrary to the doctrines of major world religions. Pulling no punches, Cornides is scathing: “Today’s innovators … use obscure and dishonest strategies to attain their objective. They have a habit of using manipulative and misleading language, obfuscating and denying reality, inventing and distorting statistics, putting subjective sentiments in the place of objective facts. Their talking and writing is not characterized by transparency, but by falsehood, mimicry and waffle …”

While the new language of rights may seem persuasive, in reality it is nothing but a wolf in sheep's clothing. In the words of Pope John Paul II, Cornides warns us to beware the “new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden than its predecessors which attempts to pit even human rights against the family and against man.”