Politics & Policy

The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Sidesteps Abortion

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, D.C., August 5, 2020. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool via Reuters)
The commission’s first report fails to grapple with arguably the greatest human-rights abuse of our age.

In July 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights, created to offer guidance on human rights informed by both the founding documents of the U.S. and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Last month, the commission released its first draft report, a consensus document approved unanimously by the eleven members of the commission, a diverse group of academics and philosophers accomplished in the field of human rights.

There is much to praise in the report, which properly grounds its conception of human rights in the natural-law principles that undergird the American Founding. In the realm of foreign policy, the report insists, we must understand human rights as something inextricably linked to the understanding of freedom and human equality championed by the world’s liberal democracies, the U.S. foremost among them.

This effort to link human rights to the core principles of the liberal tradition is a crucial one, especially in light of the progressive campaign to redefine “human rights” in a way that will advance left-wing policy goals. There has been a push among left-wing activists, for instance, to cloak radical agenda items such as expanding global access to abortion on demand or redefining marriage around the globe in the language of “human rights.”

This is especially evident at the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations, where ideologues increasingly wield their power to demand conformity with the progressive social agenda. Several U.N. commissions, for example, have spent the past few months delaying COVID-19 relief by requiring that every country accept the expansion of elective abortion as part of their aid packages.

Progressive activists frequently bolster these efforts with the assistance of rights language, arguing that failing to allow, promote, and even facilitate elective abortion is a violation of human rights. These efforts are pervasive; just last fall, the U.S. joined more than a dozen other countries in demanding that the U.N. cease calling abortion an “international right” in its policy documents — a call that, unsurprisingly, went unheeded.

Far from being a human right, abortion is a clear assault on the fundamental dignity and right to life of every human being, and the related right not to be unjustly killed. In light of the insidious and widespread campaign to advocate such a procedure under the guise of rights language, it is striking that the commission report almost entirely ignores the issue.

The reasons for the omission are perhaps understandable. For one thing, the report’s introduction notes that the commissioners “are not of one mind on many issues where there are conflicting interpretations of human rights claims,” including abortion. Because the report aimed to achieve unanimity among the commission’s eleven members, naming elective abortion as a human-rights abuse may have been an impossibility.

“The commissioners, although we were often characterized in the press as being like peas in a pod, we are basically just like other Americans and have different views on the great issues that divide the country today,” Mary Ann Glendon, who chaired the commission, tells National Review.

What’s more, as Glendon notes, the commission’s mandate was “to focus on principle, not policy formulation” and, as a result, it “did not seek to enter into debates about the application of human-rights principles to current controversies.”

“Everyone has the right to life, and nobody disagrees about that principle, but if you go back to . . . the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights in 1948, they decided that the universal declaration would not and could not go into the implications of the right to life for issues like capital punishment, abortion, and euthanasia,” she adds. “There simply was no consensus among the nations . . . about the implications of the principle.”

Such an approach may have been sensible for the sake of avoiding overtly political debate or, in the case of social issues, risking the wrath of progressive activists and the abortion-access lobby. It is disappointing, however, that a commission created by Pompeo — who has been willing to declare in his official capacity that abortion isn’t a human right — would choose to sidestep what is, arguably, the most pressing human-rights abuse of our age.

Especially at a time when abortion advocates are so intent on strengthening their advantage around the globe with the help of corrupted rights language, a firm statement to the contrary from a commission of this importance would have been particularly valuable.

The commission has succeeded in creating a document that affirms the U.S. liberal tradition and its defense of unalienable rights, including the right to life, and that is a significant service as far as it goes. But in a larger sense, it was a missed opportunity, failing as it did to declare unequivocally that, far from being a human right, abortion denies the most fundamental right to vulnerable unborn human beings.


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