Benenson's Amnesty alternative

As Principal of a Jesuit school — St Aloysius — that has withdrawn from Amnesty, may I make a few points which go to any judgment about whether to leave Amnesty.

We thought the process of consultation within Amnesty lacked transparency and that this called for a stand to be made. The implication that human rights were also a purely secular issue also called for a response.

Frank rightly calls Amnesty now a pro-choice organisation. Many members of Amnesty claim the organisation will not campaign for abortion.

It seems to me there are two Amnestys, and one part of Amnesty seems intent on pushing abortion as a human right. My understanding is that the Mexico meeting in August had the issue on its agenda, but that the upheaval over its change from neutrality has led this to be shelved for the moment. The briefing notes that the American section of Amnesty sent out do appear to suggest that parts of Amnesty will actively campaign for abortion.

I readily accept that we don't live in a black and white world, and that we simply can't exclude membership in a group because it disagrees with Church teaching on some points. That was the case with Amnesty itself before the change in policy on abortion, and we did not consider withdrawal.

Many people have argued that Catholic schools should remain inside Amnesty, because of the overwhelming good that it does. What is different about abortion, unlike, for example, promotion of gay rights, is that this policy explicitly excludes some of the most vulnerable members of society — the 'unborn human' — from its campaigns for human rights.

This goes right to the core of Amnesty as a human rights organisation and as a body that gives primacy to conscience. It strikes against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child which states that every child 'needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth'. This is surely a crossing of the Rubicon, a qualitative difference to other points of disagreement within an organisation.

I hesitate to use the word 'core' during an election campaign but accepting the logic of Frank's argument there must come a point when a disagreement is at such a core level in regards to the central beliefs of the organisation that disagreement must lead to a break. Is Frank saying that there is no single point of difference which would compel a catholic group or individual to withdraw even if that organisation is doing other good work?

In the end we decided to leave Amnesty because we saw ourselves as a catholic institution having less choice than that facing an individual. We acted to in solidarity with those who felt compelled to follow their conscience.

We committed ourselves to setting up an alternative body (the Benenson Society) so that we could give our students an experience of advocacy of human rights. In just a few weeks we have signed up schools from Brisbane, Perth, Toowoomba, Melbourne and Sydney, and individual members from across Australia, Britain, the US, New Zealand and Pakistan.

We have participated in three campaigns: for the monks in Burma, human rights activists in Vietnam, and young Australians on death row in Indonesia. Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia, the author of the amnesty prayer, has agreed to be our Patron.

And we have been in touch with Amnesty itself and have agreed to work with them in support of some of their campaigns, as we have already done with their campaign against capital punishment.

All this has had a pedagogical value. Sometimes our conscience requires us to make difficult decisions. But also we are not powerless. We can take up an issue and follow it through so that we help make a difference to a world that needs involvement and conscience.

Fr Chris MiddletonFr Chris Middleton SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius College, Milson's Point, in Sydney.





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Existing comments

What a shame Fr Chris Middleton relied on the briefing notes of American Section of Amnesty in relation to abortion considering the slewed ideas of the politics in USA.

Peg Saunders | 22 November 2007  

I think Fr Middleton's response to Fr Brennan is incisive and a necessary footnote to the discussion. Amendments to the Constitution of the USA are not acceptable points of departure for Australian debates. Direct consultation with Amnesty could well be.

Ray Lamerand | 23 November 2007  

I do appreciate that there are differing and legitimate views about the value or otherwise of staying in Amnesty.

It is important to note that policy in Amnesty is set internationally. When the Irish made some move towards quarantining the abortion issue, that was ruled out.

The change in policy is not an isolated instance. It has been building for quite some time.

In 2005 Amnesty issued a statement on attempts by the US to reject moves towards having abortion declared a human right. The US proposal sought to restrict the scope of the Beijing commitments by stating that these did "not create any new international human rights" and in particular that they did "not include the right to abortion". Amnesty International views this not only as an attack on sexual and reproductive rights as enshrined in the Platform for Action, but also more generally as an attempt to stifle the evolution of the human rights framework.

chris middleton SJ | 23 November 2007  

Fr Middleton's stance is to be applauded.

John Kelly | 14 April 2009  

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