Friday, 7 March 2008

I'll have a tall, skinny decaff fairtrade latte with wings

Isn't it nice when things are simple? Well, perhaps. But it's possible to over simplify. If you send a friend into a coffee shop with the simple instruction to "get me a coffee", what are they going to bring you? Coffee means different things to different people.

I thought about this today when I heard a discussion on the Today Programme about human rights. Now I love the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, because it is so clear and simple. You don't need a law degree to understand it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is equally straightforward. Article one of the European Charter states that "Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected." Simple.
Unfortunately, this simplicity has its downside. When I ask you to bring me a coffee, anticipating a lovely skinny latte, I am going to be disappointed when you interpret "coffee" as meaning a full fat cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles and two sugars. Yeuch. Similarly, when a lawyer reads that a person has "a right to found a family" they interpret that as a right of a prisoner and his middle aged wife to have IVF. It's these and other interpretations of simplicity that lead politicians to call for the UK to withdraw from human rights legislation.

Human rights are also difficult when letting me have my rights will somehow infringe your rights. A man's right not to be a father, say the courts, outweighs his former partner's right to become a mother using their frozen embryos. If the embryos were inside her instead of out then he would have no such right - a man cannot force a woman to have an abortion, although he may have a right to prevent her from having one.

In the recent case of the Tory peer and the nurses Lord Mancroft complained about nurses discussing their private lives across his bed. The hospital in question was not happy. Was Lord Mancroft complaining about the personal lives of nurses, or about the fact that they discussed them over him? Do nurses have a right to have full modern personal lives outside work, or should they be the angels of popular Victorian imagination? Was Lord Mancroft's right to dignity violated by the nurses discussing their private lives around him? Patients and their carers both have rights - and responsibilities.

Essence of Care focuses on the basics of care that patients can expect, privacy and dignity being two of those basics. Age Concern campaigns for dignity for the elderly in care. You'd think that ensuring the elderly retain their dignity would be a simple thing. Simple isn't always easy.

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