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Yes, this is the sort of wisdom that judges are paid for.
via Solitary Watch
In my final year of my degree, one of my assignments was a group project to develop a mathematical model to predict the spread of AIDS. As a result of the research we carried out, I was convinced of the importance of encouraging safe sex and making contraception widely available. Even after I became a Christian, I saw the denial of contraception as somehow causing harm and therefore not very loving, as Jesus calls us to be. Furthermore, I figured that it was better to help people not get pregnant instead of helping to terminate a life, which was given by God, by having an abortion.
Today (17 March 2011), I attended the Sustainable Development 2011 conference at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London. One of the speakers, Derek Flynn, the deputy head of Foresight at the Government Office for Science, gave a talk on the sustainability of agriculture and the findings of a report “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”. According to the report, the big challenge was feeding a growing global population. One delegate raised the issue of population control as the “elephant in the room”, although I personally think this is a dangerous topic because it is easy to visualise an unsavoury character justifying genocide or forced sterilisation. The chair, Sara Parkin, founder director of Forum for the Future, set off on a rant about the importance of making contraception available to women in developing countries. Her argument was that contraception enabled women – not couples – to plan their families and space the birth of children more equally. She made the point that 30% of births, in Britain and in the developing world, were unplanned.
My immediate thought was that a baby may be unplanned from a human point of view by every life was a part of God’s plan. God creates life and he would not create a life unless he wanted that life to exist. Parkin seems to suggest that a woman – not a couple – has a right to substitute their own plan for God’s plan. In fact, she called contraception a human right. And all of a sudden I found myself questioning my long held belief. Yes, contraception do give control, but are they also allowing us to override God’s plan. After all, sex does not always result in conception. Therefore, if conception takes place, it must because the conditions are right for it to do so and God wants that baby to exist. Why else would he create it.
This raises the question as to whether contraception really is better than abortion. If you don’t to have a baby, then don’t have sex.
But what about sexually transmitted diseases? Well, STDs are transmitted because people have sex with more than one person in their lives. STDs are a real problem, but they became a problem because of promiscuity, premarital sex and adultery. If people only had sex within a lifelong marital relationship, then there would be no need for contraception (unless of course one partner had an STD at the start of the marriage).
Now, I am not at the point of suggesting therefore that contraception should be banned or discouraged. It is after all an imperfect solution for an imperfect world. But Flynn countered to Parkin’s argument that the evidence shows that increasing gender equality and providing education to women (both generally and about safe sex) also reduce population growth.
Now if I were a conspiracy theorist, I would surmise that the availability of contraception undermines both gender equality and female education. It seems to create a relationship of dependence and power: women on men, the developing world on the developed world, etc. Indeed, Parkin’s referral to contraception as a human right brings to mind the work of Costas Douzinas, who has used Hegel’s master/slave dialectic to argue that human rights is a tool of the master. It helps the slave to become like the master, without challenging the master to change his ways. Likewise, contraception – and abortion – means that a woman can act like a philandering man without the latter behaving properly towards the woman.
So Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to deny prisoners the vote even though the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that a blanket ban is a human rights violation. But our politicians are on the side of wrong.
First, they say that a consequence of committing an imprisonable crime should be a loss of human rights. But, on going to prison, they already lose their right to liberty, their right to privacy and a family life is restricted and the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is curtailed. These have a greater effect on a person’s daily life than a simple right to vote.
Secondly, criminal justice is always a hot political issue, particularly at election times. Indeed, in the 2010 election, the Conservatives made a big play about building more prisons. Perhaps, if prisoners were given the right to vote, then politicians would have a much greater incentive to develop a more intelligent and more effective criminal justice and prisons policy that actually meet the real needs of the imprisoned electorate. (Incidentally, this argument also works for lowering the voting age.)
Fundamentally, something is considered a human right because it is considered to be essential to the nature of being human. Therefore, one has to question whether any of the rights specified in the European Convention of Human Rights really are about the nature of humanity. Does being locked up make us any less human? Are we less human if we cannot have some kind of family life? Are we less human if we cannot express ourselves? Indeed, the fact that society has no problem with limiting these rights in respect of prisoners suggest that they are not an essential part of being human. Neither is voting, for that matter.
If one really thinks about it, the overall consensus in Europe suggests that the only real human rights are the right to life, the right to freedom from torture and inhumane treatment and the right to freedom from slavery. Everything else are civic rights – desirable but not essential.
It all comes down to what we mean by humanity.
I would argue that human rights is not really a solution to inequality or discrimination. On the one hand, it is a part of the problem, but not because it gives the appearance of benefitting unsavoury characters. If you define what it means to be human, then it is only natural that people demand that their lives meet that definition. Hegelian scholar Costas Douzinas has written in his paper ‘The End of Human Rights': “Abstract legal relations may create the conditions for equality under the law but they do not recognise or respect the needs, desires or history of the concrete person.” In protecting the recognition of humanity, rights reduce what it means to be human to the lowest common denominator. Legal personality “negates all the contingencies of existence, race, sexuality, colour or religion”. It is the human being stripped of the bonding, social ties, emotions and mutual dependency and affection found amongst members of small and closely-knit units, such as the family. It is very easy for the state to recognise this minimal notion of humanity, because it is simple. The trouble is that human beings and their lives are complex creations that cannot be broken down into technical specification.
So, do I think human rights documents such as the European Convention should be scrapped. No! Unfortunately, the complexity that is humanity is not all good, we each have an evil side. Human rights law, even as a stop-gap measure, is still the best way that we can protect the vulnerable from the strong, without turning to religion.
We cannot define what it means to be human because we always define it from our own subjective point of view. We need an objective party, someone who is above and outside humanity. That leaves either God or E.T.
As for the parliamentary vote on prisoner voting…I attended a presentation given by a fellow PhD student, Kay Lalor, whose thesis is on the conceptualisation of sexual identity and sexual rights in international law. In many ways, the resistance that our politicians had to the idea of giving prisoners the vote is very similiar to the resistence shown by some countries with regard to legislation protecting gay rights. The thrust of Kay’s talk was that what appears to be resistence to matters of substantive law (prisoner voting, gay rights, etc) is more about the imposition of values from above by an external body. Indeed, one of the arguments voiced by several MPs yesterday was the ECHR court ruling seemed to infringe Parliamentary sovereignty. (Truth is, it didn’t, because it only said a blanket ban was unlawful and all the government has to do is think about some kind of policy that discriminates in some way, possibly on the duration of sentence, seriousness of crime, whether they pleaded guilty, progress in rehabilitation, etc. But it goes to show just how subjective appearance and objective truth can differ.)
Of course, it is not unusual for disagreement between the various branches of government (executive, legislature and judiciary)
So today is Remembrance Day. Before I say what I am about to say, I believe in the importance of Remembrance Day, I believe in the memory of all those who have fought and died for our country to protect our freedoms, human rights, liberty and democracy. And herein lies the irony. On the day that we are suppose to look back to the horrors of war and utter “Never again”, we (as in humanity) have never seemed so eager to go to war for whatever reason than since the day was first instituted in the aftermath of the First World War. If we really are going to take Remembrance Day seriously, let’s bring our troops back from Afghanistan, let’s get rid of Trident and our stockpile of nuclear weapons (three words: Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and let’s offer a real, genuine hand of reconciliation (and eventually friendship) to countries such as Iran and North Korea.
I think part of the problem is the way that we ‘celebrate’ Remembrance Day. If you go to church, you’ll probably have it included in this Sunday’s service – although if your church is anything like mine, it will probably be en passant. You may (or may not) be wearing a poppy to show that you are marking the day, but are you really? What exactly are you doing? Donating some money to the Royal British Legion or Help the Heroes, possibly having a two minutes’ silence but otherwise getting on with your day as usual. And let’s be honest, did people die to set us free just so we can be a slave to the system? (I’ll let you decide what the system is.)
Remembrance Day is, for us, what 4th July Independence Day is to the Americans. Former British colonies, such as India, Sri Lanka and Canada, celebrate Independence Day too, to mark the liberation from our rule. So why don’t we really celebrate today? Let’s make it a National Holiday, perhaps an extended weekend (such like Thanksgiving in the US). Let’s have some kind of procession in the street – and not just a military one but a showcase of pluralism, multiculturalism and peace, kinda like Mardi Gras and May Day all rolled into one. And perhaps let’s name it World Peace Day or something.
Which brings me on to my final point. Yesterday demonstration in Central London by students and lecturers against the coalition government’s cuts to higher education and plans to increase tuition fees for 80% of students is perhaps the best celebration of Remembrance Day. It is why people died in the first place, so that we can have the freedom to protest and to express our views.