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 Writer's Desk 

June 26, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 11


Teresa MalcolmAmnesty’s abortion vote may cost it support

By Teresa Malcolm, NCR staff writer

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It was 20 years ago this summer that I first joined Amnesty International, fired up by the human rights organization’s “Conspiracy of Hope” concert that aired all day on MTV in July 1986, featuring all my favorite rock bands. I didn’t just enjoy the music -- I called the toll-free pledge number, sent my donation, and then in the fall, I started up a group at my Catholic college.

It will be a sad day if next summer, 21 years after I joined, my membership will have to come to an end. But that is what will happen if at its August 2007 International Council Meeting, Amnesty International abandons its current neutral stance on abortion in favor of working for its legalization.

This is not what I signed up for. There are organizations that campaign for abortion rights, and if I had wanted to support that cause, I would have volunteered for them instead.

In activism, you follow your passion, and my passion was caught by Amnesty’s core work since its founding in 1961: the release of prisoners of conscience, the right of everyone to a fair trial, and an end to torture, political killings, disappearances and the death penalty. None of these issues have gone away. In light of some of the methods used in the “war on terror,” this work has become more important than ever.

I fear that work will be undercut if Amnesty International adopts an official stance in favor of abortion rights. How many longtime members will the organization lose? How many outlets for support? I began a student group at the Jesuits’ Rockhurst University (which still lists Amnesty on its Web site among its official student organizations). It was such a natural fit in the 1980s, with the Jesuit connections to Latin America, where some of the worst human rights abuses were occurring. I have friends who were members of Amnesty student groups at their Catholic high schools. No more. If Amnesty International adopts the abortion proposal next year, groups like these across the nation and the world will undoubtedly have to be disbanded, or at least no longer have school endorsement and the resources that come with it.

Beginning with its Catholic founder, Peter Benenson, there has been a long history of Catholic support of Amnesty International. A prominent member in England, Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, wrote to the U.K. section protesting its recent vote in favor of supporting abortion rights. Evans was a member of the organization’s British Section Council in the 1980s, served as chair of the section’s Religious Bodies Liaison Panel, and last year wrote an “Amnesty Prayer” that has been used in materials for Amnesty’s “Protect the Human” campaign.

In a letter to Kate Allen, director of the U.K. section, the bishop wrote, “I recognize that there is a wide range of viewpoints among Amnesty members, but any move towards supporting abortion will radically undermine in the eyes of many people, not only Roman Catholics, the perception of Amnesty as an organization which protects ‘the human’ at every stage of life.”

This dilution of Amnesty’s mandate may indeed endanger Amnesty’s effectiveness, if this change is seized upon as an excuse to ignore its voice: Those accused of human rights abuses may now think they can write off the organization as a radical group embracing every “liberal” issue that comes its way.

Amnesty International has a 45-year reputation built up by concentrating on a specific set of human rights issues. In recent years, it has expanded this mandate to some degree, targeting human rights violations by “non-state actors,” such as corporations or private armed groups. I’ve been able to accept such changes because I can see them as a natural evolution of Amnesty’s original work. Working for abortion rights, however, strikes me as far afield of the mission that captured my interest 20 years ago.

Understand, I am no absolutist on the abortion issue. I have long been distrustful of the extremes on both sides of the debate -- in which the most vocal in both camps acknowledge no gray areas, no nuance. But my antiabortion leanings do go this far, it turns out, that I will have to withdraw my support for Amnesty International if it makes this move. With regret, I’ll seek out some other outlet for my activism, ending my monetary support and involvement in the local group. I think I will, though, still visit Amnesty’s Web site, where I can choose from the cases posted there, and engage in some letter-writing on my own, still doing what I can for the unjustly imprisoned, for the disappeared, for those suffering from torture -- all those people around the world whose plight has called me to put pen to paper on their behalf for these many years.

As part of the organizationís global consultation on the issue, already the United Kingdom and Canada sections of Amnesty International have voted to endorse the policy in favor of abortion rights. The U.S. section has made a decision, but has yet to disclose the result.

On his Web site, Bishop Evans asks people to use Amnesty methods to make their opposition heard: Write to the organization’s leadership and urge them to reject the change.

“The world needs Amnesty International,” he says. “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.”

The issue is not closed, and I will remain a member as long as the abortion-neutral policy is in place. I’m hopeful that even those whose own leanings are toward legalized abortion might still oppose the abortion-rights move, which will imperil not only membership numbers, but how much its voice on human rights is heeded by those who most need to pay attention.

In an earlier version of the column, I said that Amnesty International’s New Zealand section had voted to endorse the policy in favor of abortion rights. Subsequently, I received an e-mail from Ced Simpson, executive director of Amnesty International in New Zealand, clarifying that section’s vote on the issue. Contrary to the news reports I had read, members attending the New Zealand annual meeting did not take a general position advocating the decriminalization of abortion.

Citing cases of violence against women in Bosnia and Darfur, Simpson said, members “noted the argument for legal, safe and accessible abortion in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest and risk to a woman’s life, and believed that AI should take a position calling for access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion.”

“They also recognized the strongly held belief of many AI members that the human right to life begins at conception,” he told me, “and that the most-ratified human rights treaty -- the Convention on the Rights of the Child -- asserts that ‘the child ... needs special safeguards and care ... before as well as after birth.’ ”

The conclusion urged Amnesty to approach the possible change in policy with “a great deal of caution and attention to all the human rights issues at stake.”

While I remain unconvinced that it is in the best interest of Amnesty’s traditional work to bring abortion rights under its mandate, I appreciate New Zealand’s acknowledgement of the difficulty of the issues involved, and hope that will characterize the continuing international discussion as well.

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@ncronline.org.
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