Hailed as the guiding star of the modern-day human rights movement, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of “the inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” including “the equal rights of men and women.” Tragically, as pointed out by Harvard Professor Mary Ann Glendon, the UDHR is now being “compromised by the practice of reading its integrated articles as a string of essentially separate guarantees. Nations and interest groups continue to use selected provisions as weapons or shields, wrenching them out of context and ignoring the rest.”
One such weapon hides behind the label of “equality,” as in portions of the mislabeled “Equality Act” and the misleading “Equal Rights Amendment,” and in some proposals for the UN Sustainable Development Goal of achieving “gender equality.” While it is urgent to protect the all-too-oft trammeled rights of women—including, as enumerated in the UDHR, the right to live free from slavery, torture, and degrading treatment (articles 3-5), to own property (article 17), to receive equal pay for equal work (article 23), to be educated (article 26)—it is dangerous to undermine the most important of their “equal and inalienable rights” (preamble) by failing to recognize the God-given uniqueness of woman and man and of their marital union.
The words “equal and inalienable” were inspired by language from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” echoing in turn the Creation account of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them,” with the woman described as “an help meet” for man—or, as in the updated translation of Richard Elliott Friedman, “a strength corresponding to him.” Men and women are created equal in dignity and strength but endowed with unique gifts. Only in their union, according to Jewish tradition, do they become “a perfect whole” and thereby “one complete human being.”
This “complementarity between man and woman,” declared Pope Francis at the Humanum Conference, “lies at the foundation of marriage and the family…. Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s growth and emotional development…. The family is an anthropological fact,” and “we cannot qualify it with ideological concepts,” for “family is family” and “has a force of its own,” being founded on “the union of man and woman in marriage as a unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful good for people, families, communities and societies.” Therefore, he urged, “we must not fall into the trap of being limited by ideological concepts.”
His warning calls to mind the trap laid by the sirens inhabiting an island in Greek mythology who, with their irresistibly bewitching song, lured passing sailors to their death by shipwreck on the rocky coast. So enticing was their music, we are told, that Odysseus ordered his crew to bind him to the ship’s mast lest he succumb. To avoid shipwreck today, we must resist the siren song that claims “equality” but denies the complementarity of man and woman, created equal in dignity and strength but endowed with unique gifts whose highest expression is in their marital union— “unique, natural, fundamental and beautiful”— to create what the UDHR recognizes as society’s “natural and fundamental group unit,” the family.