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Whose dignity? Resolving ambiguities in the scope of “human dignity” in the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights


In October 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization adopted the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (UDBHR). A concept of central importance in the declaration is that of “human dignity”. However, there is lack of clarity about its scope, especially concerning the question of whether prenatal human life has the same dignity and rights as born human beings. This ambiguity has implications for the interpretation of important articles of the delcaration, including 2(c), 4, 8, 10 and 11. The paper applies relevant provisions of the UDBHR to specific cases, addresses problems of internal consistency and considers attempts at clarifying the scope of “human dignity” by the negotiating parties. An analysis of the important relationship between the UDBHR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the UDBHR refers in its title and elsewhere, shows that because of a crucial emphatic asymmetry, a broad reading according to which the UDBHR must be understood to ascribe human rights and dignity to prenatal life is untenable. However, the view that the UDBHR confers human rights and dignity on humans from the moment of birth onwards is robust and defensible. This conclusion is important for a proper understanding of the declaration and its use, as stated in Articles 1(2) and 22, the latter urging states “… to give effect to the principles … in this declaration”. Similarly, it has implications for the use of the declaration in the wider context of bioethics-related law and policy, as well as in academic and other discussions where increasing reference to the UDBHR is likely.

  • human dignity
  • universal declaration on bioethics and human rights
  • universal declaration on human rights
  • human life
  • cloning

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  • i As recognised, for example, in The Nuremberg Code of 1947, or the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki (first published in 1964).

  • ii Article 4—Benefit and harm: “In applying and advancing scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies, direct and indirect benefits to patients, research participants and other affected individuals should be maximized and any possible harm to such individuals should be minimized.” Article 8—Respect for human vulnerability and personal integrity: “In applying and advancing scientific knowledge, medical practice and associated technologies, human vulnerability should be taken into account. Individuals and groups of special vulnerability should be protected and the personal integrity of such individuals respected.”

  • iii Note that while Canada refers to domestic human rights law, the Netherlands appears to state that any (relevant) domestic law is sufficient to serve as a guide as to what constitutes appropriate respect for human dignity.

  • iv Recital 1 of the preamble to the UDHR refers to the “inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, Recital 2 notes the aspiration of a “world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”, and Recital 5 reaffirms that “the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women.” However, Article 1 states unambiguously that human dignity and human rights engage from birth, and all following articles likewise have in mind born living human beings as bearers of rights and dignity.

  • v In isolation, focusing on the meaning of Article 1 only, it could be interpreted in three ways: (a) as saying that humans are equal in dignity and rights if and only if they are born, (b) that they may have had rights and dignity before being born, but that the ascription for this period is less straightforward, and that it can only be made with certainty in the case of humans who have been born, or (c) that “born” is chosen merely to emphasise the continuity from documents such as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), which provides in Article 1 that “Les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits.” Accordingly, it might be argued that Article 1 UDHR is neutral vis à vis bioethical questions such as those concerning the moral status of the embryo. However, analysed in context, and following Morsink,9 it becomes clear that only option (b) is an accurate interpretation.

  • vi See also Article 3 of the UDHR: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

  • vii See, for example, the statement on the final UDBHR by the UK-based group CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics), available at, or the statement by Nigel M de S Cameron, an advisor to the US delegation, who commented in October 2005 that the “resonant assertions of the centrality of human dignity and the limitations of science give us hope and ammunition to make our case” (see Life matters—Nations united on bioethics. Christianity Today, Oct 2005, available at See also ScidevNet, Sparks fly over UNESCO bioethics pact, 21 Oct 2005. = readnews&itemid = 2433&language = 1 (all accessed 18 August 2007).

  • viii It is also interesting to note that of the two extreme ends of the spectrum of positions on the moral status of pre-natal forms of life, only one position commonly refers to the UDBHR in support of their views, namely the one seeking to establish the “broad view”, according to which human rights and dignity must be ascribed in exactly the same way to all forms of prenatal human life as to born living human beings. By contrast, it appears that recent arguments set forth in support of, for example, embryo research, abortion or the use of certain kinds of contraceptive methods do not see the need to refer to the authority of the UDBHR.

  • ix It is also noteworthy that both in Glass v United Kingdom, 9 March 2004, application no. 61827/00, and in Vo v France, 8 July 2004, application no. 53924/00, the countries involved were not formally members of the convention: France has not yet ratified it, and the UK has not even signed it.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Abbreviations:
    Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights
    Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization