When do human rights begin?

When do human rights begin? Oh, how often Christians are accused of being an anti-science bunch believing in cartoonish tales of a sky theory that can’t be seen, verified, proven, or legitimized with rational scientific methodology. Science, it is argued, is far superior to faith because by science we can verify and affirm that which faith cannot. Therefore, faith is absurd and impractical.

My kids like the movie Nacho Libre, where Stephen Esqueleto repeatedly denies the claim of a need for religion. “I believe in science,” he says, “why settle for metaphysical conjecture when we had the robust reliability of this scientific method?” They laugh, they mock, they condescend, and then they, very conveniently, turn the tables when asked the question: when do human rights begin? I confess, I am not a man of great learning or wisdom or understanding, but there is one thing that seems quite self-evident to me. Human rights begin when one becomes a member of the human family. If you are human, you have human rights.

After World War II, a committee was convened to establish the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was a UN document developed under the chairmanship of Franklin Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 which outlines, in detailed fashion, what the basic rights and fundamental freedoms are for humans. This document later served as the backbone for the International Bill of Human Rights, which was ratified in 1976. Now, these are not legally binding documents, but they serve as a construct for customary international law and are generally agreed upon by people from all nations on planet Earth. The document deals with individual rights such as the right to life and the prohibition of slavery and torture. It addresses rights such as the freedom of movement and residence, the right to a nationality, freedom of thought and opinion, social rights like healthcare and adequate standards of living. It also asserts that all human beings are “born free and equal in dignity and rights regardless of nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status” (OHCHR, 2022). It was held as a milestone document for its universalist language, which makes no reference to any political system, culture, or religion.

Abortion advocates have seized upon the word “born” in its opening paragraph. “All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (OHCHR, 2022). Human rights, they argue, sre predicated on birth. To have human rights, one must be born. My argument is that human rights are rather predicated on humanity. To have human rights, one must be human.

It is not within the scope of this video to argue whether or not human birth was intended by the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be a binding prerequisite, which I maintain actually, that it was not ever their intention. But the point is that because the word “born” appears in it, abortion advocates often point to human rights as attaching only to born people. What a messy, ethical, rabbit hole that opens. The International Red Cross argued that international humanitarian law based on the Geneva Convention and the Law of the Hague (which primarily applied to circumstances of armed conflict) should extend human rights to dead people. It maintains that humans who are killed in armed conflict keep their right to have their remains properly collected and managed, and their individual dignities preserved. Human rights, therefore, do not desist at death. This is interesting.

In 2004, the United States passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which was a popular public law recognizing an embryo or fetus in utero as a legal victim if they are injured or killed during the commission of any array of federal crimes or acts of violence. This is how someone who murders a pregnant woman can be tried and convicted as the perpetrator of a double homicide. The law defines and I quote, “a child in utero as a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development who is carried in the womb…” (PLAW 108publ212, 2004). We have applied human rights and protections to the unborn here.

Some politicians, like former presidential candidate John Kerry, recognized the inherent conflict in this. He refused to support that very popular Unborn Victims of Violence Acts saying, and I quote, “I have serious concerns about this legislation because the law cannot simultaneously provide that a fetus is a human being and protect the right of the mother to choose to terminate her pregnancy.” There is admirable consistency in that. However, even John Kerry is uncomfortable with saying that you are perfectly welcome to harm any baby in the womb with zero consequence. That is not a good look. In fact, all legal challenges to the Unborn Victims of Violence Act have been universally rejected by both federal and state level courts, including the Supreme Courts of California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesotan none of which are exactly reputed as bastions of conservative legal theory.

I do not want to get too deep in the woods here, but my point is answering this: when do human rights begin? Any number of arbitrary thresholds could be suggested: heartbeat, birth, first breath, sentient thought, viability, yet no one can substantiate why human rights are conferred on an individual when they meet any of those arbitrary thresholds. The most reasonable argument for the confirmation of human rights is the point at which an individual becomes a member of the human family. If you are human, then you have human rights.

You might ask, when does humanity begin? Glad you asked. Embryology, the science of fetal development, tells us that life begins at conception. A medical textbook titled The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology says, “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being. Human development begins at fertilization. The process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete… to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual” (Moore et. al., 2020). Human rights begins at conception according to science.

To where do the hecklers of Christianity and religion who mock our belief in fairy tales and unsubstantiated faith flee? Metaphysics and philosophy. They say, “Well, yes, the unborn is human, but it is not a person like you and me.” Can you prove that? Is personhood scientifically verifiable or is it an unquantifiable and abstract construct similar to the belief in a sky fairy? What I find is that quantifiable science is often dismissed as unnecessary when it fails to carry ideological water for people.

Here I will rest my argument on this fact: No one can offer a more reasonable argument for the ference of human rights than at the point at which an individual becomes a member of the human family. Your human rights begin when you become human. Anyone who argues against this is in the difficult position of having to argue which humans have human rights and which humans do not have human rights, and of explaining why they categorize it in such a way.

Passion Life is a global missions movement that trains pastors and church leaders to understand and communicate biblical ethics. They teach people to treasure human life as intrinsically valuable from conception to natural death, to reject abortion, infanticide, and gendercide as the shedding of innocent blood, thereby constituting a preeminent moral. Proclaim the grace of the gospel as victorious, even over the guilt and the grief of abortion, and rescue the innocent. One baby, one mother, and one family at a time.

International Humanitarian Law Based on the Geneva Convention and the Law of the Hague – Google Search. (n.d.). Www.google.com. Retrieved April 6, 2023, from https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=International+Humanitarian+Law+Base d+on+the+Geneva+Convention+and+the+Law+of+the+Hague&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8
Moore, K. L., T V N Persaud, & Torchia, M. G. (2020). The developing human : clinically oriented embryology. Elsevier.
OHCHR. (2022). International Bill of Human Rights. OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/what-are-human-rights/international-bill-human-rights
PLAW 108publ212. (2004). https://www.congress.gov/108/plaws/publ212/PLAW-108publ212.pdf