Feminism, Human Rights and Bioethics

The institutionalisation of human rights is one of the biggest achievements of the international world order. This was done through the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This process was expedited due to the then-recent horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Men were seemingly violent by nature, and the world had proved itself to be an amoral place. Therefore, the rights stated therein are said to be universal, inalienable and egalitarian. The Declaration was drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt who was United States delegate to the United Nations at the time. President Truman called her the “First Lady of the World” for her contributions to human rights. Like many international female leaders of her time, Roosevelt was a woman in a man’s world. She is also quoted saying that men and women are different and that their physical functions are different. She further said that the future of her race depended on the ability of women to produce healthy children. Inevitably, predominant views such as these corrupted the formulation of human rights in several ways, prompting feminist engagement with this discourse.

This paper aims to discuss the process by which feminism has challenged and reconceptualised the limited notions of human rights. The two tenets of this process are the critique of the male-centric nature of human rights and the imagined insularity of the public and private spheres (Parisi, 2010). This is then evidenced through the debate surrounding abortion and physician-assisted suicide. There are multiple schools of feminist thought, both historically and at present. However, for the purpose of this paper, feminists are those that seek to expose the gendered dimensions of human rights and re-define it in order to attain gender equality. Finally, this paper concludes with an analysis of the gendered ideologies of the “rights” language in itself, thereby assessing the feasibility of including women’s rights into this framework.

While it might seem obvious that human rights would include women’s rights, because women are human, Karen Engle says that such an inclusion cannot be assumed (1992: 519). Early discourse by first-wave/ liberal feminists sought to emphasize the equality of sexes as mentioned in article two of the UDHR, and highlight the “sameness” of men and women. Although this provided impetus to women’s civil rights movements throughout the world, it was soon discovered that this rhetoric was limited in its utility. The “sameness” argument failed to acknowledge the differences in the lived experiences of men and women in the public sphere which were perpetuated through patriarchy in the private sphere. (Parisi, 2010)

Most contemporary feminists argue for the creation of special provisions for women under the UDHR, in order to incorporate specific women’s rights into human rights. Their justification for the same is two-fold. The first tenet of this argument is that human rights as they are defined currently, articulate predominantly men’s rights, and that this is due to the androcentric nature of the international legal order. The international law making apparatus was and continues to be dominated by men who are hopelessly blind to the lived experiences of women, thereby biasing the system against the inclusion of women’s rights. Through this argument, Charlesworth reveals the principles of egalitarian universality and inalienability as being lacking, since the rights defined therein are already gendered (1995:103). The historical discourse (going back before the creation of the UDHR) around human rights reflects masculinist ideals such as individual autonomy which are thought to be desirable masculinist qualities. Such an ideological underpinning would disadvantage women as historical notions of a rational individual are of a propertied white man. As a result, these ‘universal’ human rights would protect from encroachment of one’s personal liberties (presumably for the “greater good” of society) as long as the individual is not a woman, or part of any other marginalised group. Any legislation that does not acknowledge and address this pre-existing structural problems in society, according to Parisi’s argument, is incapable of being objective or universal in its definition of human rights (2010).

This ahistorical definition of human rights is only worsened by the imagined insularity of the public (institutions of social, political, or economic power) and private (the home and family unit) spheres. This is the second tenet of the feminist critique. Stated below is Article 12 of the UDHR, which implicitly builds on the historical notions that the family and the happenings within are apolitical, and are not open external critique.

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. (United Nations, 1948)

This separation of political power in the public sphere and paternal power in the private sphere normalises the assumption that woman’s subordination to men in the home is natural and even pre-political (Rao, 1996: 445). Therefore the human rights instruments are incapable of addressing abuses in the domestic space. By insulating the private sphere from critique, this article also establishes the public sphere as the appropriate realm for human rights. Moreover, by normalising the patriarchy in the private sphere that pevent women from accessing the public sphere (through education and employment), the human rights instruments preclude women from availing recourse even in the public sphere. In this way, the women’s problems are doubly disappeared from the eyes of human rights legislature, i.e. the woman’s rights are not violated if the woman has not availed recourse in the appropriate sphere (the public realm) to which she has been denied access in the first place. By critiquing and facilitating discussions on these two tenets, feminism has challenged the structural problems of the legislature that created barriers for the inclusion of women’s rights in human rights. The realisation that the lived experiences of men and women are different necessitates looking at the world through a gendered lens. The results of this can be observed in the discourses surrounding both the bioethics of abortion and of physician assisted suicide. These issues are far more interesting to study than something like the promotion of equal pay as feminists have engaged with both sides of the debate and do not have a unified stance on either issue.

            Abortion is a polarising issue, with feminists contributing to discourse in both the anti-abortion and pro-choice camps (Ikemoto, 2018:1). The right to life encompasses the idea that every human being has a right to live and not be killed by another person or the government. It is so obvious and intuitive nowadays that one needs to be reminded that such universal sanctification of life by law is a relatively new concept. This creates some unique problems for women because a man’s life is never as intertwined with another’s as it is for a woman bearing a child. This creates a conflict between the right to bodily autonomy of the mother and the right to life of the foetus. As Holmes & Peterson rightly point out, the right to bodily autonomy is not even part of the UDHR, and feminist literature had a huge role to play in its informal recognition (1981: 73). This has necessitated women having to push for exceptions to be made when it comes to abortions, in institutions largely dominated by masculine ideals. This conflict of interest represents a failure of the human rights framework to recognise the need for disambiguation of this right, in accordance to a woman’s lived experiences. This echoes the gendered biases displayed in Eleanor Roosevelt’s emphasis on the duty of women to bear healthy children for the survival of the race, which provides no room for abortion as something women can want. Women disproportionately bear the burden, risks and responsibilities of childbearing. However, their exclusion from the public sphere slowed progress in these debates. It is this overarching critique of patriarchy that is common among feminists on either side of the debate, which emphasises that women should have a say in the legislature that governs their bodies (Ikemoto, 2018:4). By doing so feminism has highlighted the necessity for reproductive rights to be included as a human right.

            Feminists have also had a huge role in shaping discourses surrounding euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS). Caught in the chasm between the liberty entailed by the informal right to bodily autonomy and the sanctity of one’s own life entailed by right to life, feminists have engaged with both sides of the debate to bring out the gendered dimensions therein. Autonomy, is closer to the lived experiences of men than of women (Parisi, 2010). Therefore, feminists have raised concerns over how a woman’s autonomy is affected in the context of being embedded within patriarchy. This patriarchy may result in the glorification of a woman’s self-sacrifice in not wanting to burden her family, or in inadequate access to pain relief medication due to the common archetype of the hysterical woman (Wolfe, 1996: 283). These debates swing both ways in feminist literature making cases both for and against PAS. This contextualised and embedded approach points out the constraints on rational choice that are imposed on women by patriarchy, while refuting that there is something innately irrational about a woman’s choice (Raymond, 1999:12). This discourse is important because a woman’s request for PAS might be acceded more frequently due to the glorification of a self-sacrificing woman, or rejected more often due to the perceived irrationality of their decision making abilities (Parks, 2000: 30). By contextualising PAS in the lived experiences of women under patriarchy, feminism has revealed gender-inequality that must be taken into account by any further discourse on the issue.

            Through similar processes of contextualisation, feminists have challenged and reconceptualised the limited notions of human rights in several other debates. They have advocated for the re-evaluation of human rights, considering the differences in lived experiences of men and women. However, there is also a parallel feminist discourse that questions the possibility of making human rights gender-neutral. The analysis of the ideological presuppositions behind human rights reveals the language of ‘rights’ to be gendered in itself. The language of rights assumes that society is a collection of individuals whose happiness and utility is disinterested from one another and that rights are necessary to control this amoral nature of humans (Holmes & Peterson, 1981: 73). This puts emphasis on what ought not to be taken from a person and not what ought to be given. This rhetoric is problematic because when one defines what ought not to be taken in an amoral world, it automatically defines the rest which can be taken. Moreover, operating upon the masculinist assumptions that the world is an amoral place could further incentivise and normalise these tendencies. A certain feminist discourse on the language of rights dismisses these assumptions in favour of a world which is not seen as zero-sum game, but rather one where humans can act out of positive values such as fairness, cooperation and acting out of love and friendship. This rhetoric sets a benchmark which can be exceeded under a moral framework that values giving. This view posits duties and responsibilities as more fundamental notion than rights. This discourse also critiques the idea that the existing rights framework can be modified because the concept of rights is considered to be fundamental and immutable and is thus automatically averse to challenging the social structure that is making it (Engle, 1992: 595). There are many parallels to be drawn between this critique and the larger feminist critique of mainstream IR and its assumptions of an amoral and anarchic world order. However strong this critique may be, Holmes & Peterson are sceptical of dismissing the rights framework entirely. The concept of a universal and inalienable set of human rights have become fundamental to our societies. There is a history of feminists attempting to work within this framework to redefine these rights to achieve gender-equality. As evidenced by this paper, they have been successful in challenging and re-conceptualising the limited notions of human rights. Therefore, regardless of the structural problems with the language of human “rights”, most feminists acknowledge the need to do what is possible within the limits of this framework. This ambiguity can perhaps be resolved by eventually bringing feminist thought into the mainstream, where the feasibility of such a reformulation can be given the serious consideration it deserves.


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