Amnesty International’s Pro-Abortion Stance Leaves No Choice for Members

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 16, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Amnesty International’s Pro-Abortion Stance Leaves No Choice for Members

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by Chris Middleton
May 16, 2007 Note: Fr Chris Middleton SJ, Principal at St Aloysius College, Milson’s Point, in Sydney, Australia has been an active member of Amnesty for many years.

The mainstream press has shown little interest in a debate within one the world’s pre-eminent human rights organizations, Amnesty International, that threatens to seriously fracture and weaken the body. Amnesty International’s board has just called for abortion to be decriminalized globally.

The human rights organization has thus abandoned its long-held ‘neutral’ policy that states: "Amnesty International takes no position on whether or not women have a right to choose to terminate unwanted pregnancies; there is no generally accepted right to abortion in international human rights law.”

Amnesty branches in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among others, voted to move away from this neutral stance on abortion. A subsequent poll of UK members had a majority against the change, but this was not binding. Here in Australia, the local branch was unable to reach a formal position on the change. Amnesty’s new policy does stop short of backing aborting as a "fundamental right" for women because, according to spokeswoman Widney Brown, that approach was not supported by international human rights laws.

As a Catholic priest and the Principal of a school with an active Amnesty group, such a change in policy places me in the unwanted position of contemplating the closing down of Amnesty’s presence in the school. Many Catholic members of Amnesty would also face the painful decision of whether they could remain members of the organization. The English bishop, Michael Evans, a member of Amnesty for thirty years, a council member, and the author of the Amnesty Prayer, has indicated that he will resign from Amnesty if it changes its policy. Other people from other religious traditions, or from none at all, with sincerely held convictions about abortion, would also find themselves in a difficult position.

Bishop Evans is right when he asserts that: “The world needs Amnesty International. It has touched the lives of countless numbers of people across the world who have been wrongly imprisoned for their beliefs or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment. Long may it do so — hopefully with the active support of Catholics worldwide. But this will be seriously threatened should Amnesty adopt a policy supporting the right to abortion. Those involved in decision-making at international level need to ponder this very carefully indeed.”

I do not see this issue as being about abortion as such. I would hope that, even as I have a passionate pro-life stance, I would oppose any move to have Amnesty adopt an anti-abortion policy. Bishop Evans made the point that Amnesty International was not founded to be an all-embracing human rights organization, but rather to focus effectively, as it so clearly has, on certain key issues. Amnesty, with 2.2 million members, has a proud record of working for the freedom of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials, and against the sanctioned use of torture and the death penalty. Amnesty is largely responsible for introducing into the vernacular the term “prisoners of conscience”. Its strength comes from a clear and limited focus that allows people from almost every belief system and ideology to find common cause.

By changing its position on the issue, the effectiveness of Amnesty International is at stake, and this should be of concern to all who have an interest in human rights. Already it takes an internal toll. The United States branch did not make public its position prior to the presidents’ meeting. Members are lining up to resign. I have spoken to members who were unaware of the consultation, and if you look at both the national and international websites it is curious how difficult it is to find reference to the decision or to the consultation. An organization promoting conscience has become to some extent unconscionable in its process.

Whatever the range of views of Amnesty members on abortion, moving from its neutral stance may well serve to undermine its effectiveness in its key areas of expertise and influence. Its ability to work with the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies would be impaired. It would come to be seen as a partisan body, especially in places like the United States, and thus lose its ability to build consensus around issues like the death penalty. As an organization which explicitly excludes some of the most vulnerable of all — the ‘unborn human’ — from its campaign to ‘Protect the Human’, it leaves itself open to question.

We should be clear what is at stake here. Amnesty’s abandonment of its neutral stance on abortion will exclude those whose religious beliefs lead them to a position of conscience opposing abortion. It will weaken the ability of Amnesty to work effectively in many parts of the third world. It will identify Amnesty as a secular, partisan, first world body, playing into hands of, for example, Islamic radicals looking to discredit human rights activism as a Western driven agenda. It will weaken the campaign against capital punishment in the United States by driving a wedge between its two most vocal institutional critics, the Catholic Church and Amnesty. It could embroil Amnesty in campaigns against abortion laws in countries such as Ireland or in Latin America.

As a Catholic I find it particularly sad to see Amnesty go down the path of abortion advocacy. Amnesty was founded in 1961 by an English Catholic, Peter Benenson, who died last year. Amnesty and the Church have worked together in many areas. Here in Australia, Amnesty and the Church stood together in the campaign against the execution of the Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, in Singapore in 2005.

Amnesty played an important role in the campaign to gain the freedom of Australian priest and social activist Fr Brian Gore who was jailed in the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos in 1983. Defending the rights of refugees and asylum seekers has also been an area of common endeavor.

I do not question the sincerity of those pushing for Amnesty to abandon its neutrality on abortion, but I do question their judgment about the impact of such a decision on a body dedicated to protecting prisoners of conscience, and I worry about a consultation process that seemed secretive and lacking in respect, even at the highest levels, for those who in conscience hold a view that abortion is an attack on the human rights of the most vulnerable members of the human family.