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Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

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It’s an old trick, and a common childhood game – to cut out an adult head from a magazine photograph and paste it onto the body of a baby. Evian use it on their latest bus-stop advertising campaign.

The first visual message, very boring, is that if you drink a litre of Evian water you will be as stunningly beautiful and alarmingly thin as this model. The second message, slightly tongue-in-cheek, together with the Live Young caption in the corner and the baby’s body T-shirt, is that you will retain the youthfulness, innocence, playfulness and perfect skin that you had when you were a little baby.

The subliminal pro-life message, paid for by Evian, is philosophical: whatever you think about the ‘personhood’ of a baby, this baby is you; you are the same human being; it’s one continuous life; looking backwards – once you were a baby and now you have become an adult; looking forwards – this is the baby who will become (if it survives) an adult.

When I look at a photo of myself at 15 years old, or 5 years, or 5 months, or when I look at an ultrasound scan image of myself at 36 weeks, or 24, or 12 – I say ‘this is me’. It’s a hugely different me, but it’s still me. I ‘identify’ (at a personal level) with this image, with this human being, because there is an ‘identity’ (at a biological and philosophical level) between me today and me back then; just as I identify with the me who existed 2 minutes ago. Identity doesn’t undermine difference – of course there are differences. It just allows you to affirm, at a deeper level, a continuity of existence, and gives you a sound reason for saying ‘that’s me’ or ‘we are the same person’.

The poster reminds you of the continuity between the adult ‘you’ and the infant ‘you’. It doesn’t take much to then make the link between the infant ‘you’ and the ‘you’ in the womb. And that reminds you of the importance of remembering that the human being in the womb is another ‘you’ and not just an ‘it’.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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I published this piece in Independent Catholic News earlier in the week:

Why is it ‘female infanticide’ to abort a baby girl on the grounds that she is a girl, but not ‘infanticide’ to abort the same baby girl on the grounds that she is just a baby?

The strong and provocative language about ‘female infanticide’ (rather than ‘termination’) and ‘babies’ (rather than ‘fetuses’) isn’t my own, it’s straight from the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

As you have probably heard, undercover reporters working for the paper have found that a number of abortion clinics in this country are willing to arrange terminations on the grounds that the mother or both parents are unhappy about the sex of the baby – which is illegal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that having an abortion on the grounds of gender is right, or that the abortion law should be changed to include this extra criterion. I’m just perplexed by the selective nature of the moral outrage that has come to the surface in the accompanying comments.

Why is it so wrong to abort this baby on the grounds that she is a baby girl, but not wrong to abort the same baby girl simply on the grounds that she is an unwanted baby? Thousands of baby girls and baby boys are aborted every week, and this doesn’t make the front page of the Telegraph. But the fact that some of them are being aborted because they are baby girls suddenly becomes an issue of national concern – even though if the same baby girls had been aborted for different reasons, this would have gone unquestioned.

I know the possible answers: It’s because one kind of abortion is illegal, but the other is not; it’s because one kind of abortion seems to be chosen for a trivial reason, or a sexist reason, or a reason that arises from an alien culture, etc., but the other seems to be chosen for more weighty and culturally acceptable reasons. It’s because, in the terms of moral philosophy, the motivation behind the decision does in some ways affect the moral character of the act.

But this is what lies at the root of my own perplexity at the selective moral response: the outcome is the same in both cases; the harm done to the ‘baby girl’ (using the language of the Telegraph) is the same in both cases – whether it’s done for apparently trivial reasons (‘she’s the wrong gender’) or apparently more serious reasons (‘we simply can’t cope with another child right now’, etc). The motivation doesn’t make any difference to what actually takes place in each case.

I’m not making a point here about whether abortion is right or wrong (although I do believe that it’s wrong). I’m saying something simpler, in the light of this discussion about sex selection: If it is wrong and morally shocking (because it is wrong to abort a ‘baby girl’ or a ‘baby boy’), then it is still wrong and morally shocking to do it for reasons that are legal, or for reasons that seem more culturally acceptable or serious. It is the same act, the same harm, the same outcome.

Put another way, if we feel moral outrage because a 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the hospital down the road, on the grounds of her sex, why do we not feel a comparable moral outrage because another 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the same hospital on the same day but on different grounds? The selective moral outrage feels a bit narrow, a bit arbitrary – as if there is some kind of wilful blindness.

This is the soundbite from Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, quoted in the same article:

Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant.

But why only on these grounds?

And here are some comments from Allison Pearson, also writing in the Telegraph:

Just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Yet, that is precisely what an undercover investigation by this newspaper has revealed – and today, shockingly, we learn that an expert believes the practice is “widespread”. I actually shouted aloud with dismay when I read the stories.

A woman who was 12 weeks pregnant had an appointment with the Calthorpe Clinic and explained to a doctor that she and her partner wished to terminate the pregnancy because they “don’t want a girl”. A certain Dr Raj responded, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” He then proceeded calmly to fill out a form for the abortion, casually giving a different reason to the mum and dad simply not fancying a baby girl. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?”

Most appalling of all is that the doctor’s response proves he knows that what the woman is proposing is deeply wrong, even criminal, yet he happily suggests another reason to get the abortion done. It’s as though he were penning some excuse for a work sick-note, not aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby when the only thing “wrong” with it is it hasn’t got a willy.

Pearson is so outraged that she ‘shouted aloud with dismay’ when she read the stories. This is a writer who goes on to admit that she supports abortion if it is ‘safe, legal and rare’ (quoting Bill Clinton). I certainly give her credit for writing about the ‘moral coarsening’ that has taken place since abortion became legal in this country, and for reflecting on the “slippery slope leads from guilt-free annual terminations – three for two, anybody? – to a “gender-balancing” service, which helps you plan the perfect family by vacuuming away infants of the wrong sex.”

But Pearson doesn’t shout aloud with dismay if someone else chooses to ‘vacuum away’ a 12 week old ‘infant’ if they are unwanted for another more socially or culturally acceptable reason. That’s what really puzzles me. It could be the same ‘infant’, the same ‘vacuuming away’, the same ‘aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby’ (her language) – but without the outrage.

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I’d always taken it for granted that palliative care is a good thing when it is available, but I hadn’t gone the extra step to think about whether someone has a right to receive it, or whether it would be a duty for an individual or hospital or state to provide it.

Prof John Keown addressed these issues last month in a meeting at the House of Lords put on by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre. His argument was fairly simple. There are many different ethical systems, and they would lead you to conflicting conclusions about many moral issues. But despite this, there would be a consensus about the importance of the relief of unnecessary human suffering and the provision of holistic support for those with serious health issues. And Keown concluded that it would be unethical to fail to meet the need of palliative care when it can reasonably be met, e.g. in countries like the UK with good healthcare resources.

Here is a definition, from NICE, quoted on the National Council for Palliative Care website:

Palliative care is the active holistic care of patients with advanced progressive illness. Management of pain and other symptoms and provision of psychological, social and spiritual support is paramount. The goal of palliative care is achievement of the best quality of life for patients and their families. Many aspects of palliative care are also applicable earlier in the course of the illness in conjunction with other treatments.

Is it also a human right? Keown argued that there is a duty to provide palliative care because of the internationally recognised right to healthcare. So the lack of access to palliative care should be seen as a global human rights issue. This might seem a bit extreme, but he pointed out that there is already a right to avoid ‘degrading treatment’ inscribed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3. And he went on to explore the different ways in which civil and criminal law in the UK already implicitly recognise the duty of providing palliative care.

At the end of his talk Keown speculated about how much palliative care could be improved if the provisions that presently applied to animals in this country (through the 2006 Animal Welfare Act) could be extended to human beings. This summary is from the Freshfields Animal Rescue site:

Owners have aDuty of care” to the animals they keep which is a legal phrase meaning that owners have an obligation to do something.  Prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, people only had a duty to ensure that an animal didn’t suffer unnecessarily. The new Act keeps this duty but also imposes a broader duty of care on anyone responsible for an animal to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s needs are met. This means that a person has to look after the animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer.

The Act defines “animal” as referring to any living vertebrate animal, although there is provision to extend this if future scientific evidence shows that other kinds of animals are also capable of experiencing pain and suffering.

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