February 18th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: AWB biggest scandal to hit the Howard Government

EDITORIAL: Tide turns on global capitalism

SCHOOLS: Why our children don't know history

ECONOMICS: Sky's the limit with CEO pay increases

EDUCATION AND TRAINING: Engineer shortage hurting economy

RURAL CRISIS: Black Friday for Canadian farmers

MEDICAL: Abortion pill a bonanza for lawyers

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The humbug revolution / Iran / Bush, oil addiction and the environment

AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY: Is pornography just harmless fun?

ENTERTAINMENT: American awards honour traditional values

EAST TIMOR: Will Indonesian military be let off the hook?

WAR ON TERROR: Tackling a home-grown security threat

OPINION: 'Human rights' charter a backward step

OBITUARY: Colin Pike, champion of the underdog

Religious persecution during the Spanish Civil War (letter)

B.A. Santamaria on Toynbee's 'creative minorities' (letter)

BOOKS: MANHOOD: An action plan for changing men's lives, by Steve Biddulph

BOOKS: HEAD OF STATE: The Governor-General, the Monarchy, the Republic and the Dismissal, by Sir David Smith

Books promotion page

'Human rights' charter a backward step

by Babette Francis

News Weekly, February 18, 2006
Charters of rights are meaningless in dictatorships, and in democracies their effect is to transfer power from parliaments to unelected, life-tenured judges whose interpretation of laws may be based solely on their personal preferences.

Such charters create multi-million-dollar bureaucracies - "human rights" units in every government department - and a plethora of "advisers" and "consultants".

Taxpayers' money could be better spent in reducing the disgraceful waiting-lists in hospitals, e.g., for hip replacements.


At my local hydrotherapy pool, I hear harrowing stories of operations repeatedly scheduled and then cancelled because of a shortage of beds or staff - and of the indifference of the Victorian Labor Government of Steve Bracks.

The stress on patients-in-waiting is enormous. Hip replacements may not sound urgent, but if a person cannot walk, life expectancy is substantially lowered.

The recently defeated Liberal Government in Canada allocated $CAN100 million towards a museum eulogising their Charter of Rights. That represents a lot of postponed hip replacements.

The in-coming Conservative Government in Canada is unfortunately stuck with this commitment - to a charter which gave Canada abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, age of consent at 14, legalised sex clubs and all the accoutrements of a totally permissive society.

I was not reassured at a "Stakeholders Forum" last month in Melbourne on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, convened by Professor George Williams, chairman of the Human Rights Consultation Committee.

What roused my ire was Recommendation 7 defining the right to life as applying only from birth.

This recommendation breaches Australia's obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, and the United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning 2005.

This is quite a backward step. Perhaps the Victorian charter should also be in a museum - but not one funded by taxpayers.

Professor Williams acknowledged that the wording of Recommendation 7 was imperfect, but said it was a compromise and suggested we submit alternative wording. He said acknowledgement of the right to life of unborn children could paradoxically result in the legalisation of abortion.

This was curious reasoning but, even if his view is correct, legalisation of abortion would be a political act and politicians promoting such legislation would have to wear the consequences. The right to life of the unborn should not be eliminated by denial in a "Charter of Human Rights".

Lack of protection for unborn children in the Victorian charter has serious implications quite apart from the issue of abortion. For example:

  • Pregnant women are at greater risk of domestic violence than non-pregnant women. Such violence is often directed at the unborn child via kicks to the mother's abdomen. Recommendation 7 will encourage those prone to such violence as it indicates the unborn child is not a person.

  • Those who kill pregnant women, either deliberately or accidentally, might no longer be charged with double homicide or double manslaughter, as they should be; and it may become difficult to obtain damages for unborn children injured by negligence, as in car accidents.

  • Recommendation 7 will have poor educative effects on students and the public, who should learn that unborn children are vulnerable human beings and that damage to their health, or to that of their mothers, may have lifelong consequences for both, nor will it discourage pregnant women from using drugs of addiction or alcohol. Do we really want babies born addicted to heroin? In the US, mothers have been prosecuted whose babies were born addicted to crack cocaine with resultant other life-long problems.

  • Inheritance rights may become more difficult for a child still in utero at the time a will is settled.


Stating that the right to life applies only from birth is anachronistic in view of information we now have from ultrasound images of babies in the womb, pre-natal surgery on the foetus, and reproductive technologies such as IVF and embryo adoption.

Australian and overseas legislatures have acknowledged that the human embryo is an entity deserving of respect, but the Victorian charter reads like a 19th-century document when embryos could not survive outside their mothers.

As Professor Williams asked for alternative wording for Recommendation 7, I submitted the wording of the preamble to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: "Bearing in mind that, as indicated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 'the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth'."

It will be interesting to see if Professor Williams and the Human Rights Consultation Committee take that on board. If they do, it will at least give some meaning to the word "responsibilities" in the charter's title.

Mothers, society and government departments should be responsible for the right to life of babies that have been conceived.

In a case in January 2006, in Phoenix, Arizona, a judge made a ruling in the case of a pregnant woman, Candace Dickinson, who was stopped by police for driving alone in a car-pool lane. She faced a fine of $367 but challenged the fine, claiming the foetus inside her permitted her to use the lane.

During rush hours, motorists are not permitted to use the lane if driving alone. Municipal Judge Dennis Freeman rejected her argument and said the other occupant had to be an individual in a separate and distinct space in the vehicle. At least, however, he recognised that there was another occupant!

Arrested and handcuffed

This case reminds me of the difficulties faced by mothers dropping off children at school. A mother in Queensland was recently arrested and handcuffed for double parking. She had a baby in her arms as well as a toddler.

I know double parking is dangerous but I sympathise with parents dropping off children. Think of a pregnant woman when the temperature is rising to 40ºC.

She may have two other children in car seats, plus the school child. She has to get them all out, walk from wherever she can find a legal park - and then get them back in again.

Another section in Recommendation 7 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilites which is a matter of concern is the provision for "special measures" to assist certain groups, i.e., positive discrimination against white, able-bodied heterosexual males.

As a US professor said jestingly: "If you are a black lesbian in a wheelchair, you don't need to attend my lectures. You get an A+ in exams automatically."

A Human Rights Charter which ignores unborn children and encourages discrimination against men doesn't even qualify for a museum - but maybe for a dustbin.

  • Babette Francis is national coordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc.

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