The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948-1998
Fr. Frank Pavone
Pontifical Council for the Family
On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and
proclaimed the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. This year, therefore, marks its 50th
anniversary, and provides us an opportunity to examine some themes in the
Declaration which deserve special emphasis.
The Declaration asserts, "everyone has the right to life" (Article 3). This,
of course, is the most fundamental right, since no other rights can be exercised
if one does not exist. Yet this insight of common sense is easily forgotten
these days. The Secular Humanist Manifesto II (1973), for example, lists many
"rights," including "the right to suicide," but not the "right to life"!
The Universal Declaration, furthermore, refers to human rights as "equal and
inalienable," and declares that human beings have "inherent dignity" (Preamble).
This is a key theme. In other words, governments can neither bestow nor remove
human dignity from a human being. Governments, rather, exist to preserve and
protect rights that are inherent, that is, rights which reside by
definition within the human being precisely because he or she is a human being,
and not because he or she has earned or been awarded those rights by some
Article 6 of the Declaration says that everyone has the right to be
recognized as a person before the law. This, of course, was directly
contradicted by the holding of the US Supreme Court, Roe vs. Wade, when it said,
"[T]he word person, as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the
In articles 18 and 19, the Universal Declaration asserts the right of each
person to freedom of religion and opinion on various matters, and the right to
exercise that religion and express that opinion. Later in the Declaration,
however, Article 30 rightfully states, "Nothing in this Declaration may be
interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in
any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights
and freedoms set forth herein." For example, if I claimed to practice a religion
that required me to kill another human being every Sunday as part of the worship
service, although I have freedom of religion, I do not have the right to destroy
the life of the other human being.
This applies also to abortion. The right to life, which is inherent and
incapable of being annulled by any government, may not be trampled upon in the
name of religious freedom. It is a favorite position of the defenders of
abortion to claim their "right to believe what they want" and to "have their own
opinion" about the status and value of the child in the womb. But the right of
someone to live cannot fall simply because someone else s belief does not
recognize that right.
Fifty years after this Universal Declaration, let us renew our efforts to
bring all nations to a strong respect for each person s inherent rights, most
fundamentally the right to life.
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