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Prochoice Amnesty means no choice for members

By Chris Middleton - posted Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Australia’s mainstream press has shown little interest in a debate within one of the world’s pre-eminent human rights organisations, Amnesty International, that threatens to seriously fracture and weaken the body.

Amnesty International's board has just called for abortion to be decriminalised globally. The human rights organisation 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 organisation. The English bishop, Michael Evans, a member of Amnesty for 30 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 organisation, 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 organisation 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 organisation 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.

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First published in Eureka Street on May 16, 2007.

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About the Author

Fr Chris Middleton SJ, Principal at St Aloysius College, Milson's Point, in Sydney, has been a supporter of Amnesty for many years.

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All articles by Chris Middleton

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