Amnesty International (AI), after years of skirting the issue, has officially come out in favor of abortion. At this year’s annual meeting, held in Mexico City in August, the organization declared that its policy is “to support the decriminalization of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women’s access to abortion—within reasonable gestational limits—when their health or life are in danger.”1 Pro-lifers will have no difficulty recognizing this as code language for abortion-on-demand. The human rights organization was in effect declaring that the most defenseless members of society—the unborn—have no rights worth defending.
This departure from the organization’s longstanding policy of neutrality on the abortion issue, though radical, was not unexpected. As part of its “Stopping Violence Against Women” initiative, a radical feminist clique within AI, had been lobbying for the abortion change for at least two years. And this April, the organization’s Executive Committee had secretly decided that AI would “firmly [stand] by the rights of women and girls to be free from threat, force or coercion as they exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.”2 The policy change was presented to the August meeting as a fait accompli.
AI in Damage Control Mode
Worried that adopting such a radical position might fracture the organization, AI’s headquarters staff; based in London, and its powerful American affiliate, based in New York, have gone into damage control mode. For the past six months, the organization has been quietly reassuring its membership that the new policy does not really mean what it seemed to mean: that the organization has become just another pro-abortion advocacy group. Even so, people of pro-life sentiment, including many Catholics, have been abandoning the organization in droves.
Amnesty International is invariably—and wrongly—billed as the world’s largest human rights organization. In actual fact, the world’s largest human rights organization, the one that does the most to preserve and protect civil rights around the world, is the Catholic Church. It is fair to say that most of those concerned about human rights abuses around the world, especially in the developing world, are Catholic.
AI and the Catholics
For this reason, Catholics have occupied prominent positions in AI from its beginnings in 1961. Its founder, British lawyer Peter Benenson, was himself a Catholic convert. Even today Catholics constitute a significant percentage of its membership, working in common cause with secular humanists of mostly leftist persuasion in campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience. As a broad-based coalition of people of widely varying views, AI has until now enjoyed great international prestige and credibility. It has been very effective in calling attention to those who have been imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs, from Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, to blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who opposes forced abortions in today’s China.
The organizations decision has already caused serious fissures within the organization. Amnesty International chapters in Ireland and Malta — both countries with a Catholic majority — have publicly declared that they will not be advocating the legalization of abortion within their own borders. The Irish affiliate has gone even further, stating that it will not recognize the new policy at all. The Maltese director merely parrots the national headquarters, maintaining that the international organization changed its policy only to help women who were victims of violence, such as in Darfur, where rape is being used as a weapon of war.
A Pitiful Explanation
Meanwhile Kate Gilmore, AI’s Executive Deputy Secretary General, utters tortured explanations like the following: “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations. Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the tape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracized by her community.”3
Amnesty officials may deny it, but the organization wants a right to abortion not just for hard cases, but for a lot of other reasons as well. If you want access to abortion for “health” reasons—as Amnesty does— you are in practice pushing for abortion-on-demand.
In the UK
Take the UK, for example, where the organization is based. The British Medical Service provides abortions to all women who present themselves, merely requiring that they sign a form to the effect that carrying a baby to term would constitute a threat to their physical or mental health. Amnesty, which resolutely opposes capital punishment, now paradoxically advocates extending it to the unborn without restriction.
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is among those who have criticized AI’s new abortion stance. The organization, he told the National Catholic Reporter, has “betrayed its mission. To selectively justify abortion, even in the cases of rape, is to define the innocent child within the woman as an enemy, a ‘thing’ that must be destroyed.” The Cardinal went on to advise “individuals and Catholic organizations” that they “ must withdraw their support,” since “by pushing for the decriminalization of abortion as part of their platform, Amnesty International has disqualified itself as a defender of human rights.”4
The organization recently launched a new membership drive, presumably to replace Catholics and others who have been forced to distance themselves from the organization by its abortion advocacy.
1 “Statement from Amnesty International in Response to Vatican Secretary of State,” 21 August 2007.
2 Amnesty International defends access to abortion for women at risk, 14 June 2007, http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGPOL300122007.