Amnesty Int'l Affirms It Has Dropped Neutral Stance on Abortion

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06pm EDT

( - Amnesty International has gone ahead with a decision to move away from a neutral stance on abortion, a step that will likely prompt Catholics and other pro-lifers to withdraw support for the human rights group's work around the world.

The decision was taken at a top-level, closed meeting in Mexico City, and confirmation appeared in a statement posted on the group's website late last week.

AI said the week-long international council meeting, which ended Friday, had "affirmed the organization's policy on selected aspects on abortion (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 human rights are in danger), emphasizing that women and men must exercise their sexual and reproductive rights free from coercion, discrimination and violence."

The move by the 400-strong decision-making body confirmed a decision taken quietly last April by AI's nine-person executive council, following a two-year consultation process.

The organization attributes the shift to concerns about conflicts like the one in Darfur, Sudan, where rape reportedly has been used as a weapon of war. It says the victims of rape and incest should have access to abortion, although critics of the decision note that the policy change goes further, and will also apply to women whose health may be at risk as a result of pregnancy.

The Vatican warned last June that if the organization went ahead with the change, Catholics would be urged to withdraw their backing.

A Catholic bishop in England who has been a supporter of the group for decades, earlier expressed the hope that the Mexico City meeting would overturn the decision. With the decision now confirmed, Bishop Michael Evans of the East Anglia diocese said he has decided to end his 31-year membership.

"The Catholic Church shares Amnesty's strong commitment to oppose violence against women (for example, rape, sexual assault and incest), but such appalling violence must not be answered by violence against the most vulnerable and defenseless form of human life in a woman's womb," he said in a statement.

Evans predicted that the decision "will almost certainly divide Amnesty's membership and thereby undermine its vital work. Among all human rights, the right to life is fundamental."

AI was launched in 1961 as a campaign to support prisoners of conscience. Its founder, British lawyer Peter Benenson, was a convert to Catholicism. Today it boasts 1.8 million members around the world.

A leading religious commentator in Ireland said the abortion decision was the latest in a series that reflected a "left-wing ideology."

When Amnesty International highlighted prisoners of conscience it was an almost universally respected organization," David Quinn, the former editor of Ireland's biggest Catholic weekly, wrote in the Irish Independent.

"Today it is much more one-eyed," he argued. "For example, last year it was far more indignant about Israeli behavior in Lebanon than it was about Hizballah attacks on Israeli civilian populations. It also waxes much more indignant about America than it does about say, North Korea."

Quinn said AI would remain influential but would "no longer be seen as an impartial and bipartisan organization."

In other reaction, the New Zealand pro-life group Right to Life said it deplored the AI decision, which it said was taken despite opposition by "a substantial number of members."

"Members and supporters of AI who are genuinely concerned about human rights should withdraw their support from AI which is now fatally flawed," it said. The group also voiced disappointment that churches other than the Catholic Church had remained silent on the issue.

Abortion-rights groups in Mexico, including Information Group on Reproductive Choice, Catholics for the Right to Decide, and the Mexico office of Marie Stopes International, welcomed the AI decision, according to an online women's news service, Women's eNews.

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