EDINBURGH, Scotland (Catholic Online) – The decision by an international human rights organization to endorse a policy to support efforts legalizing abortion stands against statements made by U.S., Canadian, British and Vatican leaders and its own consultation process. The United Kingdom branch of Amnesty International adopted a position favoring the legalization of abortion in cases of rape, incest, sexual assault and when the mother’s life is at risk during its March 23-25 meeting here.

Yet its consultation process of its own members, which was conducted from September through early February, found a plurality opposed all three questions concerning decriminalization of abortion.

In 2005, Amnesty International (AI) began consulting its some 2 million worldwide members on whether it should change its position on abortion. The rights organization’s International Council authorized its International Executive Committee to set policy on the questions of “decriminalization of abortion, access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion, and legal, safe and accessible abortion in the cases of rape, sexual assault, incest and risk to a woman’s life.”

Representatives from all local chapters presented their findings at the international meeting in Portugal this July. Amnesty International will make a final decision on this issue at its International Council Meeting in Mexico later this year. Among those chapters, the human-rights group’s branches in Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have voted in favor of including a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy in future campaigns. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Civil Rights League were among the Canadian groups to urge AI not to abandon its neutral stance on abortion.

The consultation of Amnesty International UK members included discussion at 11 regional conferences and a student conference, as well as small group meetings. About 1,800, slightly less than 1 percent of United Kingdom members, responded to the questions on the sexual and reproductive rights.

The results, according to the Amnesty International UK, are as follows:
– 45.7 percent voted against the organization developing policy to work toward “decriminalization of abortion; access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion; and access to abortion in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest, and risk to a woman’s life.” There were 45.4 percent voting in favor of the measure.
– 42.6 percent voted against “any further circumstances under which AI should develop policy on abortion,” while 31.1 percent voted in favor.
– 52.8 percent voted against the group taking “the view that a woman’s right to physical and mental integrity (her safety and health) includes her right to terminate her pregnancy within reasonable limitations … so abortion should be legal, safe and accessible for all women.” Only 35.3 percent voted in favor of it. U.S., British, Vatican leaders speak out against proposal

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a Sept. 12 letter to Irene Khan, Amnesty International secretary general, called “tragic” the decision the rights group would be making if it abandoned their position of neutrality on abortion, “dividing human rights advocates and diverting Amnesty International from its central and urgent mission of defending human rights as outlined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

“Please,” the bishop urged, “do not dilute or divert its mission by adopting a position that many see as fundamentally incompatible with a full commitment to human rights and that will deeply divide those working to defend human rights.”

“Amnesty International and the Catholic Church have both been in the forefront of the struggle to promote the dignity of the human person and basic human rights,” Bishop Skylstad wrote. “Much more urgent work remains, work which we believe will be harmed by this unprecedented and unnecessary involvement in the abortion debate.”

“If Amnesty International were to advocate for abortion as a human right, it would risk diminishing its own well-deserved moral credibility,” Bishop Skylstad said. “It certainly would most likely divide its own members, many of whom are Catholic, and others who defend the rights of unborn children,” he said, adding that the rights group was founded by a lay Catholic, Peter Benenson.

In an Aug. 1, 2006, statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales appealed to the 45-year-old organization, founded by a Catholic, to reconsider a move to abandon its long-held “neutral stance” on abortion.

“We do not believe that to support removing the rights of the unborn child is consistent with Amnesty’s core values,” the bishops said. “Such a policy change would, in the eyes of many, compromise Amnesty as a trusted advocate for human rights,” they added, noting that “such a decision would almost certainly divide its membership and undermine the vital work for which it was founded and for which it is justly renowned.”

Any comprehensive human-rights campaign “must include a solid commitment to protect the human rights of the unborn child,” the British bishops said, stressing that the unborn are “among the most defenseless of all humans.”

The bishops note that they are sensitive to Amnesty International’s desire respond compassionately “towards a woman who has suffered violence and a deeply traumatic experience,” in the case of rape, sexual assault, incest and risk to her life. “However,” they stated, “to take the life of the child in her womb, through another act of violence, can never be justified,” especially when “there is evidence to show that women can suffer severe emotional distress following an abortion.”

In a Aug. 3 interview aired by Vatican Radio, Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, speaking on behalf of the British bishops’ conference, said Catholics throughout the world will have difficulty remaining members of Amnesty International if the human-rights group insists on adopting a “pro-abortion stance.”

“This move gradually towards adopting a right of abortion as a fundamental human right is going to undermine that work and divide the membership, and therefore, lessen its effectiveness in the world,” Bishop Evans said.

The bishop, who served as a former Amnesty International UK council member and chairman of its religious bodies liaison panel, said that he “would probably have to withdraw my membership to Amnesty as a result.” Bishop Evans made a similar threat to leave the organization in a April 21 letter to Amnesty International UK, noting that he would continue his “commitment to bringing the candle of justice to those in the darkness of oppression … but I would not feel able to continue as a member of a body which, amidst its great work for humanity, excluded the most vulnerable of all – the unborn – from its protection.”

In June, a chief Vatican official said in an interview that Amnesty International will disqualify themselves as human-rights advocates if it begins promoting the repeal of laws around the world making abortion a crime.

“I have great esteem for Amnesty but doing this, they cut off their hands. I hope they don’t do this because if they do, they are disqualified as defenders of human rights,” Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the pontifical councils for Justice and Peace and for Migrants and Travelers, told Reuters on June 21, 2006. Amnesty International would lose support from Catholic activists if it defined abortion as a human right, he said. “When they say ‘reproductive rights’, they mean abortion. Do they defend the rights of everybody? No! Not of the unborn because the unborn will be killed.”

“Human rights follow if the human being is at the center of all concerns. We can collaborate with anyone who shares this belief,” said Cardinal Martino.

© 3/28/2007 Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)