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Saunders Speech at the United Nations on February 11, 2011

Remarks of William L. Saunders at the Annual Briefing of the DIIFSD during the 49th session of the CSD in New York (United Nations), February 11, 2011:

Ladies and Gentlemen –

I am pleased to be here today as a representative of those members of civil society who participated in the conference on “Empowerment of the Family in the modern world: challenges and promises ahead”, which was sponsored by the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development, and was held in Doha, Qatar, in January 2010.

The conference drew upon distinguished scholars, governmental officials, and representatives of NGO’s from around the world who are seeking to empower the family in a time of increasing challenges for, and stresses upon, the family. Speakers and participants came from Slovakia, Australia, Russia, Kuwait, and many others.  And, of course, the health of the family as an institution must be of concern for every country and land.  As Sheika Moza Bint Nasser al-Missned said in welcoming the conference participants: “Without healthy family structures, the health of the entire society is at risk.”

There were a wide range of issues considered during the conference, as you can see in the report provided to you today and which is being submitted today to the United Nations. In my presentation, I considered the topic of “collective rights vs. individual rights.”

I suggested individual rights, properly understood, contribute to the common, or “group” or “societal,” good.  In other words, “collective rights” and “individual rights” are not, ultimately, opposed to one another; rather they may usefully be understood to work in concert for the good of all.  Of course, one must acknowledge that either “collective rights” or “individual rights” taken to extremes are counterproductive.  In other words, collective interests might, improperly in my view, be understood so as to render individual “rights” a toothless concept.  Likewise, an understanding of individual rights that exalts individual choice to the disadvantage of all other values is counter-productive – it breaks society – and the family – apart.  In other words, there is a sort of reciprocity between the two concepts, as is recognized, if underdeveloped, in several human rights documents.

I discussed how subjective desires, no matter how deeply felt, are not equivalent to “rights.”  Rather, a sound understanding of “rights” should spring from an understanding of human nature, and of what is good for the human person.  Likewise, it must be kept in mind, when claims of new “rights” are asserted, that the human being does not exist alone, in a vacuum; rather, the human person exists in relationship to other human beings, in society.  The first society, of course, is the family, as all of the foundational human rights documents recognize.

Thus, “human rights” properly understood contains both individual and collective aspects.  It is not simply equivalent to “individual rights” or to “collective rights.”

As an example of the misunderstanding of “individual rights” to the detriment of both the society and the individual, I considered the alleged “right to die,” a term usually meant in the contemporary Western world to mean a right to assisted suicide or euthanasia.

The corpus of international human rights law does not recognize such a right.   No treaty articulates such a right, nor does customary international law.  Further, as, for example, the United States Supreme Court recognized a right to euthanasia or assisted suicide cannot properly be implied from a right to “privacy” or “liberty” or “dignity”. I reviewed the various reasons that the court, as well as task forces in both the United Kingdom and the United States, found decisively against recognizing such a right.

To sum up these reasons all too briefly: nearly every request for assisted suicide is prompted by clinical depression; in other words, it is prompted by psychic or emotional pain; when the depression is treated, the requests are withdrawn.  Likewise, physical pain can be ameliorated through palliative care; of great interest is the fact that legalizing assisted suicide actually leads to a decline in the standards of palliative care.  Why?  Because legalizing assisted suicide shifts society in profound and subtle ways away from an orientation of caring for the sick.  It diminishes our understanding that each one of us is a member of a society of mutual obligation.  In a time of economic troubles, as health care costs rise, the temptation is to look upon the chronically or terminally ill or the severely handicapped as a drain upon society, and perhaps, as lives not worth living.  We must resist that temptation, even if it is couched in the language of “individual rights”, for it diminishes the noblest instincts of every civilization to lend a helping hand to those in need.

At the conference, as with all the various presentations, my reflections were offered to stimulate further thinking and exchange, and, I believe, the conference was successful in this respect.  Dialogue among participants continued well beyond the time of the actual sessions, leading to a deeper appreciation of the important issues involved, and of the important role NGO’s play in bringing these matters to the attention of the wider society and in advocating for implementation of public policies concerned with the health of the family.

In closing, on behalf of the civil society participants, I would like to thank Sheika Moza and the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development for holding this important conference. I would also like to thank its director, Dr Richard Wilkins, and all those who worked so hard to make this important conference a great success.

We all know the family in the modern world is undergoing many stresses and strains.  However, the family is the foundation stone of society.  If cracks develop in that foundation, the societal structure built upon it is in danger of collapse.