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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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