Archive for the ‘abortion’ Tag

China and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Our local paper carried a story over the weekend describing how China enforces its strict family-planning policies. Hundreds of mothers heavy with child are forced into hospitals for late-term abortions. Chinese authorities frame their justification for such brutality in terms of the wider social good—an effort to control population growth; population size, they contend, impacts basic quality of life, including availability of food, shelter and work.

But the matter once again brings attention to China as a major violator of basic human rights. Jane Deren, Senior Advisor to the Roman Catholic Center for Concern in Washington, D.C., listed twenty areas in which China fails to measure up to basic human rights.

On December 10, the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the most important document of the twentieth century: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 brief articles, this 1772-word document sets forth the moral consensus of the post-war community of nations. Increasingly, the document functions to establish a behavioral norm by which governmental action is judged.

The Declaration was frequently quoted before, during, and after the games of the 29th Olympiad held in Beijing. Human rights activists widely protested the 2001 decision to allow China to host the games. But, as is often the case, money trumps morality; China is the fastest growing economy in the world, an important trade partner with all industrialized countries. An estimated $42 billion dollars was spent on the 2008 Olympics

Working conditions are high on the list human rights concerns in China. The Declaration sets forth the ideal in article 32, which says, in part: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment… to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity… the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

The Declaration also declares that everyone, including the citizens of China, “has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…to change his religion or belief, and …to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Christians, especially, have been denied this right and there is widespread repression of both political and religious freedoms common in most places in the world.

While the Olympics brought increased media attention to these abuses, so also will the thousands of students who are flocking to China. Of the 241,791 Americans who studied abroad in 2006-7, more than 11,000 were in China, a one thousand percent increase from one decade ago. Many of these students will stumble upon occasions of human rights abuses; some will become grass-roots reporters in the campaign to hold China responsible for its manifold indifference to basic rights.

None of these will be more tragic, more traumatic that forcing mothers to abort their children. Decisions about marriage and family are fundamental to human rights, as the Declaration states: “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and to found a family….The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

China has a long way to go—economically, politically, and morally—before it is able to celebrate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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The Moral Life of the Unborn

Yesterday I registered my resistance to calling an unborn child a “person.” Today I want to address the subject of the moral state of the unborn child.

But first, let’s begin with a text of Scripture, Genesis 2.7: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” The created thing becomes a living soul when he starts to breath.

In the Bible the “soul” is often a synonym for what we today call the self. I am a soul and you are a soul; a soul is the union of flesh and spirit. It is the soul that makes the human animal so different from all other animals; we are a soul, whales are not. (I would say dogs are not but that would generate more heated protest than anything I might write about a person!)

It is the soul that falls into sin; it is the soul that is redeemed; it is the soul that rejoices in God; it is the soul that struggles between right and wrong.

Is an unborn child a soul? The book of Genesis seems to teach that he or she becomes a soul only when he or she emerges from the womb and begins to breath: that is, takes on a life distinct and increasingly independent from the mother.

So is an unborn child a soul? Before you answer too quick consider this: is the unborn soul a moral being, capable of good and ill, subject to condemnation and in need of redemption?

Historically, the Christian church has taught that moral agency begins with birth or sometime after birth. Many Protestants have the idea of “the age of accountability.” Many Christian theologians—not this one—have taught that children are contaminated with (original) sin from birth; this is why they advocate baptism soon after birth—to remove the taint of sin.

But does this contamination extend into the womb? If so, why has there been no teaching on the moral state of the unborn? If so, why do we wait until birth to baptize or christen?

These are not silly questions. The debate about life, choice, and abortion has generated political and theological assertions that push us to think about these things. Just as I rejected “personhood” yesterday, today I reject the notion that unborn children are moral agents, not a soul in the biblical sense of the word.

Human Life and Personhood

There are several reasons why I have never jumped on the “Personhood” bandwagon when it comes to unborn children.

I believe that life in the womb is God-ordained human life; that is a theological assertion. But to call that living human being a “person” is to interject a legal term into the discussion. A “person” has rights and responsibilities under the law and those rights go much further than the “right to life.”

For instance: if a two month old fetus is a “person” under the law, he or she is entitled to legal representation independent of the mother or father, he or she would have standing in court for damages done by his or her parents during gestation, and he or she would have claims on property and income.

More than that, the constitution of the United States directs the government to take a census every ten years and count every person. This would be problematic if millions of these “persons” are hidden in somebody’s womb. This is not trivial, as the number of “persons” in a region determines how many representatives that area is entitled to and how much money it is entitled to. These are not minor things. If we declare that a fetus is a person, would a parent be legally required to report that to some government office?

We have never treated the unborn as “persons”—they do not receive a birth certificate (or a conception certificate, which would be more appropriate)—they do not receive a Social Security number—they are not granted insurance policies—and they are not embalmed and buried (unless death occurs late in the pregnancy, and I cannot remember reading very many pre-natal obituaries in the newspaper.

A birth date, not a conception date, is still the standard in determining age. A driver’s license is granted when a person reaches 16 years of life—which means 16 years since birth. How old are you is the common language? We mean: how long since your birth? Age from birth affects things like school, military service, and even marriage.

This discussion about “personhood” is important these days because the movement to outlaw abortion has adopted a new strategy: to pass state constitutional amendments declaring that the unborn child—the fetus—is a person. On November 4, for instance, voters in Colorado will vote on such an amendment.

Tomorrow I will write about the theological description of the unborn child. That also is fraught with complications.