Do women’s rights trump human rights?

To mark Human Rights Day, a passionate advocate for life considers the cause of the unborn

Do women’s rights trump human rights? It’s a question that might elicit a scoff-snort and an incredulous, “Of course not!” But as the women’s rights movement continues in strength and ferocity, it’s a question we should be asking with increasing urgency.

When better to pose this question than now, as we celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Do my rights as an Australian woman supersede the rights of a child growing within me? Does my ability to speak and make decisions and walk into an abortion clinic supplant the right of my unborn baby to live?


Eternity has curated many articles and perspectives on the sensitive, divisive subject of abortion.

As science, medicine and technology make continual advancements, we are faced with some unavoidable truths that indelibly affect our ability to uphold the tenets of that most revered document that was signed 69 years ago. And we are going to have to make a decision: to stand for the rights outlined in the women’s rights movement, of body autonomy and choice; or to stand for the holistic rights of all humans irrespective of race, gender, ability, age or location. I know which makes more sense to me.

Let’s rewind for a moment and look in some detail at what that concept, “human right”, really means. Hello, Google dictionary!

Human, noun.
A human being.
Synonyms: Person, human being, personage, mortal, member of the human race; man, woman, child; individual, living soul, soul, being; earthling.

Right, noun.
That which is morally correct, just, or honourable.
A moral or legal entitlement to have or do something.

Is an unborn baby a human? And do they have a right to life?

I’m glad you asked. Straight up, we can point to Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” So it’s an emphatic yes!

In 1989, the UN ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child to recognise and reinforce the unique and special needs of children. The convention, of which Australia is a signatory, says, in the preamble:

“Children, by virtue of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and care, including proper legal protection, before and after birth.”

Do my rights as an Australian woman supersede the rights of a child growing within me?

Article 3 states, “parties shall always act in in a child’s best interests as the primary consideration,” and Article 6 states “parties recognise every child has the inherent right to life” and that “parties shall ensure, to the maximum extent possible, the survival and development of the child.”

But I will pre-empt the counter argument: “An unborn baby is nothing more than a clump of cells reliant on its mother for sustenance and therefore completely unable to operate as an individual – as a person, a human.”

Yet, yet … it seems that almost daily I read of new evidence that unborn babies – embryos, foetuses, products of conception, whatever you wish to call them – are almost miraculously developing and responding and behaving like … well, like humans!

Take the 2016 UK study published by Marta N. Shahbazi and colleagues, titled Self-organization of the human embryo in absence of maternal tissues, which proved embryonic autonomy. That is, human embryos can manage their own development inside or outside of the womb. In an article for Public Discourse, Dartmouth MD/PhD candidate Ana Maria Dumitru explained the significance of the study’s findings:

Embryos know what they’re supposed to do to live, and they try to live, whether they’re in their mother or not.

“Shahbazi and colleagues thawed out frozen embryos that were donated to their research group from an IVF clinic. The embryos had been frozen after fertilization, and they were at various stages of first-week (pre-implantation) development when they were thawed. Shahbazi and colleagues then grew these embryos past the point at which they would normally implant themselves into the uterine lining, using an in vitro culture system of their own design. They reported that these cells can successfully organise themselves despite not being implanted in a uterus. This means that, as we suspected, embryos know what they’re supposed to do to live, and they try to live, whether they’re in their mother or not. As the authors state in the paper, their culture system “allows human embryos to undergo the pre- to post-implantation transition in vitro, in the absence of any maternal tissues.”

Setting aside the ethical (and stomach-turning) quandary of such experiments, we can see that humanity is established from the earliest stages. They are not merely clumps of cells. Science is revealing that the so-called “clumps of cells” are behaving very differently to your garden variety cell clump.

“Children, by virtue of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and care.” – UN Convention on Rights of the Child

This one little cell, with its complete genetic content, can and does begin to divide and to grow, even in an experimental dish in an incubator in the closet space of some unmarked lab. … That means, as we suspected, embryos know what they’re supposed to do to live, and they try to live, whether they’re in their mother or not,” Dumitru writes.

If they’re not “just cells” and it’s been proven that they are autonomous and unique, could it be that they are human before we’re calling it? More and more research is stacking up in support of this view, like Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen’s 2008 book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.

“Nothing extrinsic to the developing organism itself acts on it to produce a new character or new direction of growth,” they similarly concluded.

When you hop onto the #standup4humanrights website, you can take a pledge. If you agree with the three dot-points listed, you can add your name to the petition which has collected more than 11,000 signatures so far:

1. I will respect your rights regardless of who you are. I will uphold your rights even when I disagree with you.

2. When anyone’s human rights are denied, everyone’s rights are undermined, so I will STAND UP.

3. I will raise my voice. I will take action. I will use my rights to stand up for your rights.

When I read these and I think of the unborn, I see a blinkered sense of justice. “I will respect your rights regardless,” it says. Regardless of how old you are, pre-born even? Regardless of your location, in the womb even? Regardless of the circumstances of your conception? Regardless of whether you are wanted?

My heart drops, because I know this isn’t the reality for babies at four weeks and six weeks and eight weeks and 12 weeks and yes, even at 16 weeks, 20 weeks, 32 weeks. Abortion deprives babies of their right to life. And so often, it also tears people apart emotionally. As the second point states, whenever someone’s human rights are abandoned, we are all at greater risk. As a society, we are at risk of having blood on our hands if we cannot raise our voice, point to the truth and use our own rights to make a stand for those whose rights have been deprived.

Claire van Ryn is communications specialist for pro-life group Emily’s Voice, a mum, wife and blogger.