Letter to the Editor
There are many flaws in the arguments presented by Jakob Cornides (‘Human Rights Pitted against Man’, IJHR, February 2008). I shall restrict myself to responding to just one: his assertion regarding religious beliefs on abortion.
Cornides asserts that ‘practically all of the world’s major religious traditions’ are opposed to abortion and that it would therefore be impossible for any meaningful international forum to assert a right to abortion. In the first case, it’s hard to see why religious opposition to a policy initiative should hold sway at any international or national forum. While religious voices should certainly be heard in such policy discussions, they should never be given extra weight because they are religious, let alone given veto power.
In addition, it is simply incorrect to say that most religious beliefs are opposed to abortion. Many denominations, including the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, as well as Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism have all adopted official statements that support reproductive choice as a matter of conscience.
Specifically pertinent for my organisation, Catholics for Choice, it’s important to note that there is much in the Catholic tradition that supports the pro-choice position. While a cursory examination of Catholicism might suggest a definitive and unchanging opposition to abortion, a more careful reading of church documents shows that Catholics may support the legalisation of abortion and its morality in a wide range of circumstances. In addition, there is a deep regard for individual conscience at the heart of church teaching on moral matters – meaning that decision-making on abortion is left up to the individual.
It is also noteworthy that despite several opportunities, the official teaching forbidding abortions has never been proclaimed infallible. The reality is that the official teachings against abortion do not meet the traditional tests for infallibility. A prerequisite for infallibility requires a consistent church position on the teaching, but the church hierarchy has favoured varying opinions regarding the moment of personhood throughout history.
During the second Vatican Council the Catholic church adopted the principle that laws must not prevent people of other faiths from practising their faith. Since many religions support a woman’s right to choose, laws against abortion would violate their rights.
Cornides is right that access to abortion is severely limited in many countries, but it is widely available in others. If we are to accept that human rights are truly universal, then we need to ensure that the human rights of women to decide when and whether to continue a pregnancy are also recognised. Until such time as women’s human rights are considered universal, the law will continue to be a battleground for arguments such as these.
This letter originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of The International Journal of Human Rights.