The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 in the wake of the atrocities of World War II, is the foundation of religious liberty worldwide and also covers the rights of nonbelievers.

A leading scholar suggested in a Sept. 20 talk that although the landmark document doesn't mention this, its demand for respect for human dignity should even extend to the unborn.

"Think of how some people treat the unborn child," Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told an audience at The Catholic University of America. "Well, the unborn child isn't far enough in its development, so we can treat the unborn child as inferior. Or even the newborn child, (who) could be treated as less equal than a mature rabbit or dog.

"So we have to fight against that temptation all the time. ... We need to be able to see the fundamental worth in all humanity of anybody," he continued. "The homeless person under the bridge. The disabled person, the mentally disturbed person, the person whose mental illness may result in his being very offensive, even involved in criminality of some sort. ... Still, they have an unerasable human dignity."

George spoke at the university's Institute for Human Ecology at a program to mark the university's new master's degree program in human rights.

He also thinks the rights mentioned in the document should cover the full expression of religious freedom.

"The right to religious freedom is not merely the right to private worship. ... It's much more than that. It's the right to witness for one's faith in public as well as in private," George explained, and also means the right to bring religious beliefs "into the public square … to compete with those who have their differences."

"Having a great document by itself isn't worth much. But it does empower institutions of civil society," he said.

The declaration, adopted Dec. 10, 1948, is a way "to make a statement of common ground, according to George. "And not just a least common denominator sort of approach, but to make a profound statement of the dignity of the human person, the profound inherent and equal dignity of the human person, and an affirmation of the rights that human beings have … simply in virtue of their humanity."

"If we look at the long course of human events, that's not something that people have been all that eager to affirm," George continued. "The strong are not always so eager to affirm the equal rights and equal dignity of the weak."

"At least in theory," he said, the declaration affirms that "human beings, simply in virtue of their humanity, have a profound inherent dignity and certain basic fundamental natural or, to use the language of the declaration, human rights. Rights that are not the gifts of kinds, or chieftains, or parliaments, or presidents, or governor or prime ministers.'

But it doesn't address, he said, "the next obvious question: From where do those rights originate?"

From those in faith traditions, "the answer is God. God-given rights, founded upon God's will," George said. "But the declaration doesn't get into that. There was no consensus on that."

He praised how novel the idea of universal human rights was at the time.

"Everyone likes to think they're superior," George observed, but the document "reflects an understanding that nope, as a matter of fact, the strong are not superior to the weak, the brilliant are not superior to those who are less intelligent or cognitively disabled, the beautiful are not superior to those who are not so pretty, not so handsome. We're equal."

There are some additional differences in interpretation.

"Americans tend to think of negative rights: what the government does not interfere with -- freedom of the press, freedom of association, free exercise of religion," he said, while Europeans "think of positive rights: rights to education, health care, security in old age. (But) to just say I have a right to health care doesn't say much of anything."

Reasonable societies, George said, "differ in how the good is to be provided. If you make claims to positive rights, you have some arguments, some intellectual work that you have to do."