Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 55 members of the US Congress asking him to address what they see as the human rights violations of women in El Salvador.

Amnesty International explains the background:

El Salvador banned abortion in all circumstances in 1998….. Women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face a prison sentence of two to eight years. Health care providers who assist them face up to 12 years in prison….. Women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to 50 years in prison. Amnesty International has documented the cases of many women who have been sentenced to decades in prison after having a miscarriage.

According to the BBC:

El Salvador is not the only country in Latin America to have such strict laws, but it is particularly strict in enforcing it. Doctors have to inform the authorities if they think a woman has tried to end her pregnancy. If they fail to report such cases, they, too, could face long sentences in jail. The result is what human rights groups are calling a criminalisation of miscarriages and medical emergencies.

San Salvador’s auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez was quoted as saying: “Every human life is sacred. To get rid of that is committing murder. If there are two lives in danger, you have to save the one that’s most fragile and that’s the child”.

So El Salvador is being entirely logical in how it enshrines Roman Catholic theology (can that be the right word in to describe such a cruel policy?) in its civil law.

If I may repeat myself, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily, recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

I suspect that if we did follow the anti-abortionists’ logic and launch a full Inquest every time a woman suffered a miscarriage, just in case there had been some intent on her part to induce the miscarriage, or negligence in this regard, then we would see an uproar from all sane people, and Amnesty International and US politicians would be on our case with a vengeance.

But requiring an inquest in these circumstances would be the logical (but crazy) outcome of the call for the “unborn” to have the same legal rights as a child or adult. Sometimes those guilty of folly and cruelty need to be shown a reductio as absurdum to help change their mindset.

We are, one might surmise, less savage in our laws (or their implementation) than El Salvador is; but we are undoubtedly less consistent too. If we are to enshrine the doctrine of a particular religion in our laws, then why don’t we go the whole hog, just as Iran or Saudi Arabia do?

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Health is a human right?

7 February, 2012

Following on from our new President’s assertion that we all have a basic right to material comfort, here are some further thoughts on the creeping enlargement of what is perceived to be the set of human rights.  Specifically, do we all have the right to health, as opposed to the right to healthcare?  Of course not.  Yet there is an increasing, and dangerous, amount of sloppy thinking and writing on this very question.

There are some medical conditions that are not susceptible to treatment, and we don’t (yet!) say that being a victim of such a condition is a breach of one’s human rights for which somebody must be called to account.  If I get incurable cancer, can I sue the State?   No.  If my health deteriorates significantly due to old age, should I join a march protesting at such a flagrant breach of my human rights?  Not unless I want to be ridiculed.

Surely being in a state of health is no more a human right than being talented or good-looking?  Life deals us all a different hand, and civilised countries use the collective resources of society to mitigate the inherent unfairness of this; they do not (or at any rate should not) guarantee to make us all paragons of health and sanity, regardless of the cost or of the limitations of science and medicine.

Having the right of access to healthcare, however, is a different and less controversial issue. Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

As an aside,  I wonder was the last phrase “in circumstances beyond his control” intended to qualify the whole paragraph or just the second part?  In other words, if somebody (for instance) has access to reasonably paid work which would allow him/her to provide for an adequate standard of living (including healthcare) for his/her family, yet chooses not to engage in such work, has he/she the right to have others provide such a standard of living?

The question may be in large part academic, as the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which Ireland has ratified, provides that “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.  So not alone do I have a right to an adequate standard of living (this time not explicitly including healthcare), but I have the right to have that standard raised every year!

Anyway, Article 12.1 of the aforementioned International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides that “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”  This is extraordinary language, and the framers surely cannot have meant it literally. As written, it would mean that I have the right to be as healthy as the healthiest person in the world, both physically and mentally.  A corollary of having a right is that there is somebody I can enforce that right against.  This is ridiculous, obviously. What were they thinking?

Admittedly they attempted in a subsequent commentary (2000) to row back from the widest interpretation of what a “right to the highest attainable standard of health” actually means; but the damage had been done, and one might ask why they didn’t choose their words more carefully in the first place.  If those involved really meant that people should have the right of access to the best reasonally available healthcare, rather than to a state of health itself (and even that proposition has its opponents), they should have said so.

I note that this woolly language and woolly thinking is spreading. Last year, a full house of Irish NGOs published a report (Report on the right to health and the right to housing in Ireland by: Age Action Ireland/Disability Federation Ireland/Make Room Campaign Alliance/Mental Health Reform/Women’s Human Rights Alliance) which recommended inter alia that the right to health be incorporated in the Irish Constitution.  Hard to believe that this has escaped comment.

And so the proliferation and inflation of human rights, and the consequent debasement of the very concept of same, continues apace.

PS…. Too much loose talk about human rights –  I long for the day when we are all asked to sign up to a Universal Declaration of Human Duties!

 

President Michael D. Higgins, in his inaugural address said: “… it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.”

Hang on a minute: does everybody have a basic right to material comfort, to be provided by the state if one’s own resources or efforts fail to deliver? What about the incurably indolent member of society?

The provision for needy citizens of basic shelter, and the avoidance of real hunger, admittedly seem reasonable demands on the State in any civilised country. But actual comfort?

I can probably live with Higgins’s assertion that “security” is a basic right, on the grounds that security is ill-defined and can mean different things to different people.

But comfort? This is just careless waffle, surely?

Did I miss a United Nations Declaration to the effect that everybody has a right not to be uncomfortable?  (The nearest the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes is in Article 25, which says “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”)

In Britain, Labour MP Frank Field and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries have tabled amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill which, if accepted, could result in a delay to women seeking an abortion.

The amendment will require GPs to refer women with  “crisis pregnancies” to independent organisations who do not themselves carry out the abortions, rather than refer them directly to an abortion provider. The proposal’s alleged aim is to ensure that advice and counselling is not carried out by organisations which may have a  “vested financial interest” in women going ahead with abortions, and to ensure that women are presented with  “all the information” by unbiased organisations.

However, Marie Stopes International believe that the proposed amendments risk limiting women’s access to expert counsellors who are trained in sexual and reproductive health.  They reminded politicians that the critical point was that women have rapid access to impartial, non-directive and expert advice from trained counsellors, if they decide they want it.

Last week, Suzanne Moore in The Guardian wrote an angry (and very frank) piece about the proposed changes and what she sees as their sinister motivation (It’s the same old game. Get your rosaries off my ovaries, as we used to say.)  Below is an extract.

This whole debate around counselling pivots on the idea of deep and private shame, positing the idea of counselling being used to sell an evil procedure. Women are always “vulnerable” dupes, never simply adults who have made decisions. Some weird pension analogy has been brought in, though health care is nothing like it as advice and services do often come from the same people  ie: doctors.

The truth is that, in theory, the argument about abortion is won. Most people, however uncomfortably, support a woman’s right to choose.  We feel that pushing a woman to give birth to a child she does not want is heartless. We know the lengths women go to. The moral cowardice of the Irish polity results in those women, often alone and shivery, whom you see on Ryanair flights.

There is little point trying to persuade those who are religiously opposed to abortion (though I am intrigued at the Catholic attitude to the foetus – miscarried babies are not buried as they are not baptised) but we can simply remind ourselves we are living in a largely secular democracy.

The secular democracy she refers to is, of course, Britain and not Ireland.  Irish politicians have dodged this issue for decades, leaving the Supreme Court to make all the running, and leaving gaps in the process.

As I commented previously, even in Ireland we implicitly, and necessarily,  recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” .   Under Irish law, an Inquest must be held if a coroner has reasonable cause to believe that a death occurred suddenly and/or from unknown causes.  That we don’t subject women to such a ridiculous process every time there is a miscarriage during a pregnancy demonstrates that even in Ireland we are prepared to accept that in practice a foetus does not warrant the same legal due process and protection as a fully formed human being.

But too many people continue to pretend otherwise.  For them, I finish with Suzanne Moore’s bitter comment:  “Loving the unborn more than the born is politically convenient, as the unborn do not have to be housed or educated or parented.”

Abortion and Lisbon

29 September, 2009

It’s annoying to see another crackpot letter in The Irish Times  last Friday arguing that we should vote No to the Lisbon Treaty because of the abortion issue.  The letter,  from Rev Anthony Scully, includes this choice extract:

The European Union has embraced the “Culture of Death”. Yet again, Europe has become a slaughterhouse. Millions of its own children have been exterminated. Defenceless human beings have been and are being denied the right to life.  A vote for the Lisbon Treaty is a vote for the culture of death.

This is crazy stuff, and I’m surprised that The Irish Times gives space to such inflammatory and perverse outpourings.

Already (even in Ireland) we implicitly, and necessarily,  recognise that the death of a foetus does not warrant the same legal protection as the death of a child or adult.  For otherwise our law would require that, every time a woman becomes pregnant but fails to deliver a live baby in due course, there would be a full and formal legal Inquest into the “death” of the “person” . 

Read the rest of this entry »

Anybody who grew up witnessing the years of struggle against apartheid in South Africa, as I did, would surely have been impressed by the cumulative effect of international sanctions against the former regime there.  Institutionalised discrimination against people on grounds of skin colour was ultimately defeated and South Africa became a respectable member of the world community.

For many years now, a related question has been preying on my mind.  Why is there no equivalent international agitation against regimes that have institutionalised discrimination against people on grounds of their genderRead the rest of this entry »