Don't boycott pro-choice Amnesty

'Light of the world', by Chris JohnstonAmnesty International has changed its policy on abortion. Amnesty states that it is not for or against abortion. But it is now a pro-choice organisation.

As a result, some Catholic schools have withdrawn from Amnesty, and the Australian Catholic bishops have now urged Catholics 'to seek other avenues of defending human rights', adopting a position that 'membership of Amnesty International is no longer compatible with Catholic teaching and belief on this important point'.

But within the framework of Catholic moral reflection, to which I shall confine myself in this article, the issue does not permit such a blanket determination. Amnesty, like many modern NGOs, has moved to a 'full spectrum approach' in articulating policies on a broad range of social issues. It maintains its core business which includes the release of prisoners of conscience and fair and prompt trials for political prisoners.

The Australian bishops' blanket determination, in the absence of any published reasoning distinguishing both formal and material cooperation, and permissible and impermissible material cooperation, raises a significant problem.

The issue would be simple if the organisation in question were Children by Choice, an organisation which is dedicated to making abortion more readily available, such that any participation with the organisation would be tainted by cooperation with abortion.

But members of organisations such as Amnesty, which take a full spectrum approach to human rights, are not taken to agree to every item in the organisations' policy statements.

It would be wrong for a Catholic formally to cooperate in providing abortions or in activities aimed at making abortion more readily available. Bishop Anthony Fisher gave a useful description of formal cooperation in a recent address at the University of Sydney entitled 'From Good Doctor to Dr Evil: When Should a Doctor Cooperate in Evil?':

'Formal cooperation is where the cooperator not only does something that foreseeably helps the principal agent do wrong, but the cooperator does so while sharing in the wrongfulness of the principal agent's act — his/her wrongful end or intention or will.'

So it would be wrong for a Catholic to join Amnesty, participate in an Amnesty campaign or donate to Amnesty with the specific intention that abortion be made more readily available. It would not be wrong for a Catholic to participate in an Amnesty campaign which was unrelated to abortion, nor would it be wrong to donate funds to Amnesty for purposes other than the provision of abortion.

It is quite consistent with Catholic moral reasoning for a Catholic to remain a member of, or cooperator with, Amnesty and involve him or herself only in campaigns unrelated to abortion. If troubled by the prospect that some financial contribution would be dedicated to abortion activity, a conscientious Catholic could ask that Amnesty establish bookkeeping practices which would quarantine flagged payments from abortion activities.

Consider an example which has occupied Catholic moralists for generations. All would agree that a conscientious Catholic should not work at an abortion clinic. But surely it is more a matter for individual prudence and prayerful discernment for the conscientious Catholic deciding whether to work (in any role not directly related to the performance of abortions) at a public hospital where abortions are performed.

In the past Catholic bishops have not suggested that Catholics could not serve on the fund raising committees of our prominent and esteemed public hospitals, nor that Catholic surgeons should not work at them because some of their co-workers practise abortion, nor that Catholics should not work as cleaners or domestic staff in such institutions.

In fact, there have been occasions when church leaders have espoused Catholics working in the public health system so that they might influence the system with a coherent Christian health ethic. Could not the same case be made for ongoing involvement with Amnesty?

Participation in a 'tainted' organisation only for untainted purposes is the more readily justified when there is no practical alternative for achieving a good result. For example, there may be no better way to agitate for the release of prisoners of conscience than by signing on with Amnesty.

Though it may be permissible or desirable for individual Catholic adults to remain part of Amnesty, is it a good pedagogical decision to align students with a pro-choice organisation when the other admirable human rights objectives could be achieved without membership of such an organisation?

Alternatively, is it a good pedagogical decision to isolate students from a compromised organisation with otherwise admirable objectives? Wouldn't it be better to educate students in the way of mediate and remote material cooperation with Amnesty while they are at school so they may be better equipped to contribute to the common good in a fallen world, realising that purity and martyrdom are not the daily fare of public political life and activity?

Though respecting the bishops' decision, especially in the absence of any published, persuasive reasons analysing the different types of cooperation, I maintain there must continue to be a place for prudential decisions by persons involved in permissible material cooperation in Amnesty's work.

Fr Brennan is a Jesuit colleague of Fr Chris Middleton, Principal of St Aloysius College in Sydney, who had a very different response to Amnesty's pro-choice stance when he wrote for Eureka Street back in May. To read what Fr Middleton had to say, click here.

Frank Brennan SJFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, professor of human rights and social justice at the University of Notre Dame, and Professorial Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of NSW.




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Existing comments

Thank you for making a moderate conservative Catholic voice heard. There's another point I think the less moderate ones have missed: that there is a difference between thinking something wrong, and thinking that no Catholic could support there being no legal sanctions against it. Even morally conservative Catholics have by and large become reconciled to homosexual practices, and to contraception, not being illegal; even to approve of this, and to think that more harm than good would come of there being laws against them. It is consistent for them to accept abortion, or much abortion, not being illegal either, and even to approve of this, without approving of the abortions. On these grounds I think that the bishops are simply mistaken in what they say is incompatible with Catholic teaching and belief.

john fox | 15 November 2007  

I was so pleased to read this article. Thank you.

Pauline Coll | 15 November 2007  

I would be interested to know how the Vatican would consider Father Brennan's position because the argument would appear to be that it is possible to quarantine support for an organisation in some activities without endorsing other of its activities. Would this still hold if Amenstry International were imnvolved in the procurement of abortion? I think not. Doesn't Father Brennan's argument risk reducing to an act of ingenuousness such as supporting a tyrant's regime based on his skill in operating rail systems whilst turning a blind eye to the 're-education camps'?

Flavio Romano | 15 November 2007  

Thank you, Frank, for a reasoned and reasonable response to this issue. While I respect the creativity of the schools who quickly created an alternate organisation with the same core purpose as Amnesty, I believe they have not solved the dilemma, but only delayed it. Ultimately, any group committed to the same core mission as Amnesty would have to face the situation of supporting them one way or another. Your response should be helpful to educators.

Anne Benjamin | 15 November 2007  

The article, sadly, does not entertain the possibility of Catholics who actively support women's rights to self-determination, including the right to terminate unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. I am both a Catholic woman and a strong supporter of women's human rights, including the right to safe abortion. I congratulate Amnesty for finally going a small way to supporting women's right to choose.

Anna McCormack | 15 November 2007  

Amnesty does a lot of good but it is now fatally compromised by withdrawing its advocacy from the most foundational of human rights - the right to life. If there is no right to life there is no right to anything and the whole Amnesty project becomes incoherent.

The abortion issue has become emblematic of what is morally at stake in much of the world: the trashing of rights in the name of utility, liberty, convenience etc. Amnesty has said it will now campaign for the amendment of legislation throughout the world to withdraw the protection of the law from the pre-born class of humanity. That is completely unacceptable to the Catholic Church and all right-thinking people.

I doubt if ongoing involvement with Amnesty is likely to bring much influence to bear. It was my experience and the experience of other life-long supporters of Amnesty that the organisation was completely impervious to protests and argumentation pleading that it not alter a position which had served it well in the past.

The Benenson Society embodies the original spirit and purpose of Amnesty without moral equivocation.

Christopher Dowd | 15 November 2007  

While it is true that belonging to Amnesty is not formal cooperation and therefore not sinful on the grounds of co-operation, it is likewise true that one could legitimately protest against an organisation which practices something immoral. The closest analogy that I can think of was when many people boycotted Nestle over its marketing of infant formula in third world countries. A Catholic is not obliged to join in, but there is a good case for an organized mass boycott, which is effectively what the Bishops are calling for. (In one sense, of course, this is an exercise of power, but that is no good reason for queasiness) Besides this, Catholics joining in such a boycott are genuinely ensuring that there is a unified Catholic/ethical voice, which cannot be ignored. The problem with the alternative option, of continuing co-operation, is that it offers the opposition an easier way out. I also am not sure of the tenability of the claim that there is no other way of opposing human rights abuses than through amnesty international. Besides, if this is true, then why not set one up?

KK | 15 November 2007  

What a sensible, logical and ethical position to take. Thank God for Frank Brennan.

Christine Valladares | 15 November 2007  

Basically just - thank you.
The lack of robust debate on this issue amongst Australian Catholics over the past two years has deeply disturbed me. I am particularly distressed as a woman that we are not seen to be offering to rape victims in other countries the kind of compassionate and sensitive response given to patients in Catholic hospitals in Connecticut. Thanks again Fr Brennan. I am comforted to know I am not the only person still wanting to hold my candle in the darkness of fear!

margaret | 15 November 2007  

I have no substantive issue with Frank's moral reasoning about the legitimacy of individual Catholics choosing to remain members of Amnesty.
Frank makes a point about how "a conscientious Catholic could ask that Amnesty establish bookkeeping practices which would quarantine flagged payments from abortion activities." I know Bruce Kent in England and some others have sought this, and my understanding is that Amnesty has ruled out any such quarantining of funds. Fr Chris Middleton SJ is principal of a school that has withdrawn from Amnesty. He outlines his reasoning for doing so here.

chris middleton SJ | 15 November 2007  

Whilst I am passionate that abortion should not happen, I am often disturbed by the fierceness and even mindlessness of some pro life activities. Compassion for both parents and child is needed. Whilst it is important that anyone considering an abortion has a right to a clear understanding of just what that means, it also needs to be understood that a woman making the decision to keep a child may need consistent support until the child no longer needs her. Talking a woman out of having an abortion is only the beginning. That aside, resigning from an organisation removes our ability to have any say in the policy making; it may be that by remaining a member we can help influence the future.

Margaret McDonald | 15 November 2007  

Thanks Frank. I agree with the argument you have made and believe Amnesty is still a great organisation worthy of support from all who value human rights. There is also a case to be made for continuing membership in order to influence the very policy that is objectionable - a strong voice within the organisation is needed too.

Ern Azzopardi | 15 November 2007  

Three cheers for the voice of compassion and humanity!

CLIVE MONTY | 15 November 2007  

For the first time I find myself disagreeing with Fr Brennan, who seems to have made an elementary mistake. It's absurd to suggest Amnesty's decision will not help to enable at least one abortion to occur, which would not otherwise have occurred. We former Amnesty members (like, I suspect, the vast majority of ordinary members) who in line with Amnesty's former consistent ethos, oppose abortion, have been given no opportunity to input or even be informed about this new policy.

Margaret's assertion that it would be "compassionate" to punish the children of rape victims for the crimes of their fathers also seems bizarre.

Sharon | 16 November 2007  

I commend Fr Brennen on his article, it is the voice of reason and understanding. I was particularly appalled at the knee-jerk reaction by many Catholic institutions to withdraw support for Amnesty International over this issue.

Angela McDonagh | 16 November 2007  

This particular issue of AI's decision to support the decriminalisation of abortion hinges on whether we see abortion in one of three commonly held ways: as a human right, a regrettable human necessity, or an act of murder. If it is a right, abortion should be defended and supported. AI has not done this. If it is a regrettable necessity, those who have them should not be punished. This, it seems to me, is AI's position. But if it is murder, it should not be tolerated. This is the Catholic Church's position.

But as Fr Brennan points out, this does not preclude Catholics from supporting institutions that actually perform abortions. Then why should it stop Catholics from being members of AI? Perhaps, instead of withdrawing from AI, Catholics have a responsibility to make their opposition known and understood from within AI. Abandoning AI leaves it to those who actually see abortion as a right, and who will push for its active support.

Drasko Dizdar | 16 November 2007  

Father Brennan - thank you for articulating this view.

joe annetts | 16 November 2007  

In regard to Angela's comment I raised my concerns publicly with Amnesty and my own school community in September 2006. To my knowledge Amnesty never consulted with any school group. The decision was not not a knee jerk one, and was made months before the bishops' statement.

chris middleton | 16 November 2007  

It is somewhat disingenuous to describe the responses from Colleges, such as St Aloysius' in Sydney as knee jerk, simply because one disagrees with the response. The suggestion that changing the current approach in Amnesty via "immersion" has born little response or debate from within the world wide organisation. Alas the transparency of the debate seems to be presently limited to the debate between two worthy Jesuits. I commend to the critics to visit the website of the Benenson Society if only to be informed as to proposed active alternative.

Michael J. Donohoe | 16 November 2007  

Thanks to Fr Brennan for so lucidly stating that which I have felt instinctively from the start of this controversy. The decision whether to leave an organisation which in some way is engaged in an activity which we cannot approve, or to stay in the organisation and work for change, is one we all face from time - in work, sport, social, and in this case humanitarian activity. Hasty judgements, made when the hurt is fresh, are usually not the best judgements.

Vin | 16 November 2007  

Fr Brennan brings a lot to any table. His comments and thoughts are always welcome. I dare say the ACBC could make a more detailed theological case and it may well have merit too. However, this is a bit like the dilemma faced by supporters of the Australian Labor Party. If there is a realistic prospect of bringing the majority around to your position on such a life and death issue, then stick with it. If not, the option of creating a more focused organisation and agreeing with other organisations on areas of mutual agreement is probably a better course.

It would appear rank and file members do not have as much imput into party or Amnesty machines as lobbyists. If we can't get to the helm, and the vessel isn't heading on course, then we may as well abandon ship and start building that can speed past the old one. The danger is that the design of your ship needs some basic principles if it is to float, sail and navigate. Abandon too many of them and you'll end up with a jet ski!

Greg Briscoe-Hough | 16 November 2007  

Dear Frank, If, as you write, Amnesty is now a 'pro-choice organisation', where does that leave Amnesty with regard to euthanasia? Am I being unreasonable in deducing that a pro-choice stand on abortion equates to a pro-choice on euthanasia? Am I an old silly in thinking that legalised voluntary euthanasia would be followed by involuntary euthanasia as sure as night follows day? Would not a pro-choice position on abortion by a hugely respected organisation like Amnesty predicate an increasing public acceptance of voluntary then involuntary euthanasia? In some countries the 'Early Inheritance Act' has become a grim reality.

Claude Rigney | 16 November 2007  

Thanks for your clear expose - it seems to me that many, including bishops, have had a knee-jerk reaction against AI. Your article and Bishop Fisher's excellent address are nuanced and balanced. Thanks to you both.

Father Malcolm Fyfe msc | 16 November 2007  

I too would like to thank Frank Brennan for his thoughtful, well-reasoned article. However, I would also like to support Anna McCormack's position: I, too, am both a committed Catholic and a supporter of women's right to safe, legal abortion, and this can often be a very uncomfortable position to be in! The fact is that it is by no means clear-cut and self-evident that the embryo/fetus is a fully-fledged human being with the same right to life as you or I, especially in the first few months of pregnancy. This means that it can be morally legitimate to take into account the consequences for the woman (and her family) if she continues with the pregnancy, rather than expecting her to go ahead no matter what the cost. I've often wondered, since the Church teaches that it is possible to have a "just war", why can we not have a "just abortion"? Are we really supposed to believe that this has nothing to do with the very male-dominated, patriarchal nature of the Church's history?

Cathy Taggart | 16 November 2007  

There was a case in Ireland, in which a father raped his young daughter. Would the local parish priest want her and her offspring in 'his' school? If he was your father, and she was your sister, how would you decide? Whose right is it to decide?
If a religious Sister were raped, would the local bishop be acepting of her publicly raising the child, and remain a member of her congregation?
It is issues like these, that A.I is dealing with on the 'right to have a termination.
Rape has become a weapon of war.

Malcolm W. Reville | 16 November 2007  

As usual the reasoned voice from Frank Brennan. Thanks to him and to Eureka street for the article.

Rosemary Keenan | 16 November 2007  

Fr. Brennan's analogy with public hospitals is misleading. His argument would be true if the policy of the hospital board included the practice of abortion as the Amnesty board has done. This board is a moral entity. Any understanding of Christian life includes the thought that to break one point of the Law is to be guilty of the whole Law.

Alex | 16 November 2007  

Father Frank Brennan understands we don't live in a black and white world of right and wrong. Unfortunately, many Catholics (and wider Christians) believe we do and act accordingly. They would do well to reflect on possible consequences of their actions. Amnesty International should be supported for all the good it does and all the evils its spokespeople speak out against.

Maureen Strazzari | 16 November 2007  

Thank you for this article. It has troubled me that such a blanket response has come from those with the power to influence young minds. However, I agree with Anne McCormack that there is no support in the article for the position of women who support women's rights. I quietly rejoiced in Amnesty's position as one that recognises the serious nature of such a decision that some women must take and questions the right of organisations to try to govern this decision without lobbying for the removal of circumstances which lead to such a decision. I do not believe that the decision to abort a fetus is taken lightly but there are some circumstances in which this must happen for the common good.

Cecily McNeill | 16 November 2007  

Another point needs to be made. Let us assume the shoe was on the other foot. Assume there was an organisation which was dedicated to the eradication of abortion, and was really effective in such a thing. Let us assume further that this organisation additionally supports torture in some circumstances. Now, I think most people would agree that there is a good case for boycotting such an organisation. In fact, I suspect Fr Brennan himself would be quite eager to argue that such an organisation should be boycotted. Why not here?

One should take into account the fact that abortion is itself the torture, of at least one person, in most cases of two. Far from being a right to choose, it seems in most cases to act to remove the number of choices available to women.

KK | 16 November 2007  

I can assure Maureen that those of us who work with teenagers don't see a black and white world - it is full of ambiguities and contradictions. I am somewhat disappointed to have people write about kneejerk, unthinking etc, and really not allow that people may be following their consciences. I suspect many also have not looked at the charter of the Benenson society. Frank's argument is at two levels. The first is about authority and Frank argues that a Catholic could in good conscience remain a member of amnesty, an argument that I basically accept. That is not to say because one could remain a member that you should remain a member. This second level of Frank's argument he himself leaves an open question.

chris middleton | 16 November 2007  

Drasko Diszdar makes the point that the Catholic Church defines all non-spontaneous abortion as murder. Like several of the other correspondents,I cannot agree with this opinion. It's a very complex question, and a simple equaation of abortion with murder helps no-one. In practice, I don't think too many Catholic women would believe a woman who had a termination is a murderer. If the Church would address the complexity of the situation, it would be better able to help women to make a decision in accord with their informed conscience. Being 'pro-choice' doesn't mean we'd automatically choose abortion, but we don't get a lot of help with sorting out the issue. Perhaps Amnesty may be inadvertently giving us the kind of help we seek, not to permit abortion, but to make an informed decision.

Joan Seymour | 16 November 2007  

Moral discernment is rarely simple. On the issue of who our friends are, Jesus himself was far from black and white. On one occasion he says: "Whoever is not against us is for us." But on another: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." Apart from being a salutary warning never to use scripture to bolster our own opinions, it is an even more important lesson about moral complexity and paradox. I applaud Fr Middleton's careful discernment and his encouraging of it within his school, and the clear decision they have reached. But I'm with Fr Brennan in making my own, which I also consider valid. Both responses are necessary, and both have their roots in the lesson learned from the one who (to literalist eyes) looks like he was contradicting himself. Perhaps if we saw truth as a discovery continually to be made rather than a hardline to be followed, we'd be closer to the truth that "will set you free" to respect each other even as we differ.

Drasko Dizdar | 17 November 2007  

Thank you so much for this reasoned discussion. As a teacher and daughter-in-law of one who received assistance from Amnesty I have been quite disturbed at the simplistic approach that has been taken and which we have been urged to follow in schools. Our young people have been similarly disturbed and somewhat nonplussed. Sadly this stance has become another reason for them to turn away from the church.

Jennifer Mardel | 17 November 2007  

How refreshing it is to nourish the soul by observing this serious issue being discussed in such intelligent, gentle and compassionate terms by two caring individuals. While Chris Middleton is looking after one of my teenagers and soon to be entrusted with another, and i am entirely happy with his decision as principal of the school, my own view is that the primary reasoning he puts forward as to why the "effectiveness of Amnesty is at stake", will in fact become a self fulfilling prophecy by a decision to boycott. Why not see what practical effect, if any, the change in policy has? At the same time - voices and views will be expressed and who knows, things might change, be reconsidered, not be given full effect, creative bookeeping solutions might even arise that could accomodate some concerns.

A | 17 November 2007  

This clearly and fairly argued approach has been of great assistance to me personally but as an 80+ year old, I am more concerned that my grandchildren's generation are not scared off from making an effective contribution to Amnesty.

David Dyer | 18 November 2007  

Would he take the same view that Catholics should be involved in Amnesty if it had a policy supporting apartheid or antisemitism? I doubt it. In such an instance, he would no doubt say that the witness of opposition to such grave evils was very important. There is no reason why Catholics cannot seek to oppose violations of human rights outside of Amnesty - and so much the better if a pro-life group is set up to assist this.

John Hammond | 20 November 2007  

Cathy Taggart says "it is by no means clear-cut and self-evident that the embryo/fetus is a fully-fledged human being with the same right to life as you or I". Leaving aside the question of what 'fully-fledged human being' means, it follows that it is by no means clear-cut and self-evident that the embryo/fetus is NOT a fully-fledged human being. In other words, it might be. And so it is surely immoral to kill it.

Gavan Breen | 23 November 2007  

In reply to Gavan Breen: one part of me would very much like to wholeheartedly support the Church's stance - but when I try to apply it to the real world, it just doesn't stand up. Firstly, while abortion is not just a "women's issue", I think the Church's position lacks credibility since women have had NO input at all into the development of this teaching. Also, the implication seems to be that no morally decent person, who respects the sanctity of life, would support legal abortion. Yet this also doesn't reflect reality. But perhaps most of all, the abortion issue is different from when the Church opposes unjust practices which benefit the powerful and privileged; women who opt for abortion are often in a vulnerable or disadvantaged position, or at least are ordinary women who may face real suffering if they have the child. Surely opposing abortion is less important than ensuring that women and their families get all the help and support they need, so that abortion becomes unnecessary!

Please, let's discuss this issue with openness and honesty, taking into account ALL of reality, not just whatever supports the Church's postion!

Cathy Taggart | 24 November 2007  

Sorry, Cathy Taggart, I took so long to discover that you had replied to me.
A few years ago a lecturer in an ABC lecture series (I forget and can't find my notes as to who it was) said, more or less, that 100 years ago those people who were the most enlightened, humane and tolerant were also the most racist. I think in another 100 years ago someone might say the same, with 'against the rights of the unborn' substituted for 'racist'. Centuries ago, morally decent people might keep slaves. Today it's abortion.
I agree with you about the importance of supporting women and families.

Gavan Breen | 30 November 2007  

It seems that, however much we may debate other aspects of this issue, we all agree that more support should be given to women and families. I keep hoping that Catholic individuals and organisations who feel they can no longer be part of Amnesty will not limit themselves to finding or setting up other, similar human rights groups. Instead (or as well as), let's start looking for ways to give meaningful help and support to families and to genuinely recognise the value to society of parenting and other traditionally 'female' work. In fact, I'm convinced that this lack of real support for women's traditional family work is itself a human rights issue!

Cathy Taggart | 02 December 2007  

i think that people should and shouldn't get abortions.

asante' simmons | 25 March 2008  

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