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Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch.South China Morning Post / YouTube

WASHINGTON, D.C., January 17, 2020 (C-Fam) — The leader of one of the world’s top human rights organizations told the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights last week that abortion is a “fundamental right” for “anyone who wants or needs it” and that arguments about the humanity of the unborn are merely “philosophical,” with no place in policy.

Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth criticized Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s basis for founding the commission. Pompeo initiated the expert body to guide the department in response to a proliferation of new rights claims that often compete against one another. Roth said that abortion has always been a human right, and only the claims to it are new. He warned against “picking and choosing” among rights.

Roth admitted that abortion is not mentioned in any of the UN human rights treaties, but said it is grounded in fundamental rights such as the right to health. He said there are “millions” of preventable deaths that could be averted by abortion, based on the presumption that women will inevitably seek out abortions, including by extremely dangerous methods, whether it is legal or not.

The reason we know abortion is a right, he said, is because “authoritative interpretations” by UN experts have said so. He said the Human Rights Committee is “not that different” from the U.S. Supreme Court, calling it the “final arbiter” of rights enumerated in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a party. In fact, the committee can only offer personal views and they are not binding on nations.

Commissioner Katrina Lantos Swett pointed out to Roth that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article on the freedom of belief is “capacious.” She said rights are rights because they incur duties, that it is because we are free to believe that others must respect that right and not infringe upon it.

Roth said there is no tension between a right to abortion and religious freedom because the only thing protected by human rights is a “freedom of belief” and not the right to exercise it in one’s professional and societal roles. He said that a rural doctor must obey “a different set of rules” from an urban doctor, and must perform abortions even if she is morally opposed lest women have to travel for the procedure.

Commission member Peter Berkowitz said that while Roth referred to the unborn child as a “fetus,” others argue that it is a child and a human being, and a bearer of human rights. Berkowitz asked Roth about the tension, in that case, between the rights of the mother and child. Roth acknowledged that there are differing philosophical and religious views on this subject, but since agreement will never be reached, policy makers must rely on UN expert interpretations of positive international law. Based on the opinions of treaty bodies, Roth added, “we are in no position to take the absolutist position that this is an unborn child.”

If national law is pro-life, Roth told Commissioner David Tse-Chien Pan, then international law trumps. “The whole point of human rights law is to limit governments,” he said.

Published with permission from C-Fam.