Fifty years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, and the pre-war slide into eugenics, there was a spirit of determined idealism which helped fashion the United Nations Declaration of Human rights. The movers and shakers were deeply affected by the colossal loss of life amongst civilians and the military but, above all, it was the stench of the ovens of the concentration camps and the skeleton like survivors which conditioned post-war thinking.
The 1920's and the 1930's had been a period of appeasement and isolationism. Studied indifference greeted the decisions of the German medical and political establishments to promote abortion and euthanasia - and then the deployment of eugenic techniques and experiments on human beings. The creation of an Aryan master race, "beautiful people," became an obsessive objective which first took mentally and physically handicapped people, then gypsies, then homosexuals, Jews and other non-Aryan races, and Christian dissenters (although there were precious few who took a stand).
This was the background against which the United Nations formulated it's Declaration - and it is not surprising that chief amongst the rights which it promulgated was the very right to life itself: as Article Three states that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person."
Fifty years later, in a year which will be marked by anniversary celebrations, it is worth revisiting the Declaration and question whether there is really anything much to celebrate.
Countries such as Britain and the United States pride themselves as adherents to human rights policies and supporters of the UN Declaration but judged against the pledge to defend the right to life such claims look pretty meaningless.
In Britain, we have just commemorated thiry years of legal abortion. In the United States, 1998 is the twenty fifth anniversary of Roe v Wade. These anniversaries give the lie to any pretence that post-war idealism and determination to uphold the right to life has been achieved.
For those who do not know them, the stark facts from Britain alone are worth rehearsing: 5 million British abortions in thirty years; 177,225 abortions in 1996, a rise of 8.6% on 1995; 1 in every 5 pregnancies deliberately destroyed; abortion of disabled babies permitted up to, and even during birth.1
But this is to tell only half the story. Thirty years ago the Labour Government manipulated the parliamentary system by providing extra time for the Bill to be enacted. Since then no Government has provided the time which would be necessary for amending legislation (most notably Margaret Thatcher refused it in 1987, preventing my own bill from completing its stages).
The climate which allowed the 1967 Bill to be so successful had been created over a sustained period of time. This story has been repeated again and again in many other legislatures who have imitated the British legislation - and the techniques are being used again as they seek to legalise euthanasia.
Opponents had been lulled into a false sense of complacency while hard cases and horror stories, some doubtless true, others grossly exaggerated, were remorselessly trawled through the press. The is the text book case which amply demonstrates the truth of the adage that "hard cases make bad laws".
The Hansard record of the 1967 House of Commons speeches reveals a mixture of guille and self-deception, sincerity and cunning. Some speakers genuinely believed that they were liberating women; others were pursuing an agenda which they are still attempting to systematically complete. That agenda includes eugenic testing, genetic engineering, the elimination of disabled people, embryo experimentation, coercive population control, and euthanasia. At times the debate may appear exhausted but it is by no means concluded.
Until 1973-74 the argument largely focused on the state of the foetus. Almost unnoticed the abortion lobby retracted and regrouped, as foetal scanning debunked the propagandistic nonsense that the unborn child was merely a clump of tissues or a lump of jelly.
Adroitly, from the mid-seventies they switched to the surer ground of rights and specifically to a woman's right to choose "not to be burdened".
The argument ran like this: "Yes, I know it's killing, but my rights are paramount.". They insisted that this was entirely a private matter and having changed the law to their liking it was no longer to be a matter of public policy.
The political liberalism of John Rawis was the ideal context in which to proclaim these new rights and to abandon old values. The claims of God, he said, could no longer trump the claims of citizenship and the assumptions of the moral philosopher, T H Green's, of positive freedom and the common good were superseded by a new doctrine of claimed rights undergirded by a merely managerial approach to politics2. The new, non-principled, politics believes the sanctity of life is just one more stall in the market, that the right to life is no longer to be a paramount right, and that it is wholly unreasonable and, indeed, intolerant to insist that abortion is wrong.
And so, in Britain, in the short space of 30 years, a serious crime has become a right, a public question of law and ethics has become a personal choice, and a practice once firmly repudiated by medics has become a routine medical procedure - so routine that clinics offer a lunch-hour service.
And to what other enormities has this led?
100,000 human embryos are now experimented upon or destroyed in Britain annually. Procedures specifically prohibited on other species by the 1986 Animal Procedures Act are permitted on humans by the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act3. In touchy-feely Britain we are required to display emotions, to exhibit (often counterfeit) compassion, and embrace politically correct causes. If you are a fox or hate smoking you are in luck; if you are an unborn child, too bad.
Question the legislation which permits a handicapped baby to be killed at birth and you will be reviled as a bigot or misogynist. The Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, along with every other elected member of the British Cabinet voted for the eugenics provision. Donning the clothes of Bill Clinton, Blair outlined the new doctrine in the 1997 General Election as "personally opposed to abortion but in favour of public provision". Imagine the derision if I claimed to personally oppose the Blair Government's sale of arms to Indonesia and then voted for it as a "matter of public policy".
This ambivalence mirrors the mixed sentiments of mixed-up middle England. Pro-lifers need to understand this. It may prove a better beginning than it first appears.
In this convoluted world of invented values we have permitted the popular belief to emerge that choices can be made without consequences, that rights outweigh obligations, that the strong can trample on the weak. Prolife questions have been side-lined as a "single issue" instead of the defining issue of our times. In this respect those who drafted the United Nations Declaration had a better sense of priorities than the people of the nineties.
Measured against the promises of the 1967 legislators, many of today's realities stand as a stark rebuke. Chief among their claims was that legalised abortion would liberate women. Studies, such as that undertaken by the Committee of Inquiry chaired by the British peer, Lord Rawlinson, the former Solicitor General, point instead to a generation of women physically and psychologically hurt by abortion4. Men have increasingly used abortion as a way to exploit women and to evade their own responsibilities.
The claim was also made that children would all be wanted; abortion would reduce the incidence of abuse. Today, 46,000 British children are on child protection registers. Might it not be that abuse permitted in the womb was always likely to increase the incidence of abuse after birth?
While the abortion clinics replaced the orphanages, adoption of babies became far more difficult and expensive fertility treatments - which don't work for four out of five couples - became the resort of the desperate.
Legal abortion has chaned our attitudes to our doctors, our partners, our children and to the sanctity of human life.
It has also bred an ugly intolerance; journalists sacked for insufficiently compliant copy; doctores, nurses, and medical staff sacked or refused promotion for refusing to collaborate; a scientist sacked for refusing to monitor emissions from an incinerator burning the bodies of aborted foetuses; pro-life students denied free speech; the Labour Party's Life Group denied a stall at a Labour Party Conference; Emily's List money available to women candidates on the one condition that they support abortion; and the BBC's risible decision to allow a racist General Election broadcast because of the importance of "free speech", while censoring a pro-life broadcast because it might cause offence.5
Absurdity is piled upon absurdity as the Government proclaims a pious concern for human rights in China and then allocates funds - around £10 million per annum - to the Chinese Population Associaton. China's 'one child policy' makes it the only country in the world where it is illegal to have a brother or sister, and Britain and America help fund the forced abortion, forced sterilisation and forced fitting of IUCD's in women, which are used to implement this policy. How this squares with the proclaimed ethical policy of Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, is a mystery. It is all part of what Pope John Paul II memorably described as "the culture of death."6
The channels which are used to pour western money into the CPA and which enable China to pursue these barbaric policies are the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the - especially ironic in the light of this fiftieth anniversary - the United Nations Family Planning Association. As movie goers are shocked by China's barbarism in Tibet, and are provoked by Brad Pitt's telling performance in "Seven Years in Tibet," let them remember that in the 1990's the UN and western governments collaborate in the systematic abuse of women's rights in China. The BBC World Service, as recently as September 1997, reported that "riots have broken out near the southern city of Gaozhou after government officials moved in to enforce the country's one child family planning policy ... Officials said the trouble began when local residents refused to co-operate with the family planning authorities who were checking whether mothers in the area with one child were sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices. Heavy fines are imposed on those who violate China's national policy that allows couples to have only one child." American and British tax payers continue to fund these policies as the British and American administrations pander to the Chinese government - with President Clinton's pre-election promise to end China's most favoured nation status as hollow as the UN's promise to defend the right to life.
In 1967 the British abortionists said their legislation was not the commencement of a slippery slope. Opponents were said to be scare-mongering when they warned that euthanasia would inevitably follow. Conscience, they promised, would be protected. All of these assurances proved to be as meaningless as the grand declaration made fifty years ago that the right to life would be the base upon which all other human rights would be erected.
This has been a chaotic century which will be remembered for its culture of violence and death, not for a consistent and thorough-going view of rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities.
Yet there are hopeful straws in the wind. The Roe v Wade case (1973) famously led to legalised abortion in the USA. Jane Roe has now changed her mind. In Britain I sense that opinion has been moving in our direction. The work of LIFE in establishing more than one hundred Life houses and care centres, a Health Centre and baby hospice, the work of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, through education and campaigning; the work of the Prolife Alliance, in contesting elections; the witness of the Revd. James Morrow and Rescue; the consistent pro-life ethic of the Movement for Christian Democracy, and Alert's work against euthanasia, are all helping to change minds. A single life saved more than justifies this painstaking approach.
In America many now argue for a pro-woman/pro-life approach as the best strategy for defeating abortionism. They argue that we must change the abortion debate in a way which puts women and children together on the same side. I agree with them. It is not enough to be against abortion, we must be positively and consistently pro-life.
Society has become hyper-sensitive to women's rights. By establishing the link between the pro-life position and women who have been victimised by abortion we stand a better chance of turning around the argument. When abortionists are made legally responsible for protecting women's health and are required to inform women of the risks and alternatives, many who have been taken in by the slogans may think again.
In the wider political battle we need rather greater courage in reminding the United Nations and western governments why the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights came to be drafted in the first place.
1. Life after Death, David Alton, The Christian Democrat Press,
Old Hall Green, Ware, Hertfordshire, SG11 1DU United Kingdom. 1997
2. The Politics of Conscience, Melvin Richter, 1963(?)
3. Department of Health figures.
4. The Rawlinson Report on the effects of abortion on women. CARE. Romney Street, London, 1994
5. British Department of Health statistics.
6. Evangelium Vitae
David Alton was a member of the British House of Commons for 18 years; he is now an independent Crossbench member of the upper house of the British Parliament, the House of Lords. Lord Alton is Professor of Citizenship at the Liverpool John Moores University, Treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary pro-life group, a patron of LIFE, and co-founder of the Jubilee Campaign (a Christian human rights organisation) and the British Movement for Christian Democracy.