Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Prochoice Amnesty means no choice for members


Prochoice Amnesty means no choice for membersAustralia’s mainstream press has shown little interest in a debate within one the world’s pre-eminent human rights organisations, Amnesty International, that threatens to seriously fracture and weaken the body. Amnesty International's board has just called for abortion to be decriminalised globally. The human rights organisation has thus abandoned its long-held ‘neutral’ policy that states: "Amnesty International takes no position on whether or not women have a right to choose to terminate unwanted pregnancies; there is no generally accepted right to abortion in international human rights law.”

Amnesty branches in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, among others, voted to move away from this neutral stance on abortion. A subsequent poll of UK members had a majority against the change, but this was not binding. Here in Australia, the local branch was unable to reach a formal position on the change. Amnesty’s new policy does stop short of backing aborting as a "fundamental right" for women because, according to spokeswoman Widney Brown, that approach was not supported by international human rights laws.

As a Catholic priest and the Principal of a school with an active Amnesty group, such a change in policy places me in the unwanted position of contemplating the closing down of Amnesty’s presence in the school. Many Catholic members of Amnesty would also face the painful decision of whether they could remain members of the organisation. The English bishop, Michael Evans, a member of Amnesty for thirty years, a council member, and the author of the Amnesty Prayer, has indicated that he will resign from Amnesty if it changes its policy. Other people from other religious traditions, or from none at all, with sincerely held convictions about abortion, would also find themselves in a difficult position.

Bishop Evans is right when he asserts that: “The world needs Amnesty International. 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.”

I do not see this issue as being about abortion as such. I would hope that, even as I have a passionate pro-life stance, I would oppose any move to have Amnesty adopt an anti-abortion policy. Bishop Evans made the point that Amnesty International was not founded to be an all-embracing human rights organisation, but rather to focus effectively, as it so clearly has, on certain key issues. Amnesty, with 2.2 million members, has a proud record of working for the freedom of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials, and against the sanctioned use of torture and the death penalty. Amnesty is largely responsible for introducing into the vernacular the term “prisoners of conscience”. Its strength comes from a clear and limited focus that allows people from almost every belief system and ideology to find common cause.

By changing its position on the issue, the effectiveness of Amnesty International is at stake, and this should be of concern to all who have an interest in human rights. Already it takes an internal toll. The United States branch did not make public its position prior to the presidents’ meeting. Members are lining up to resign. I have spoken to members who were unaware of the consultation, and if you look at both the national and international websites it is curious how difficult it is to find reference to the decision or to the consultation. An organisation promoting conscience has become to some extent unconscionable in its process.

Whatever the range of views of Amnesty members on abortion, moving from its neutral stance may well serve to undermine its effectiveness in its key areas of expertise and influence. Its ability to work with the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies would be impaired. It would come to be seen as a partisan body, especially in places like the United States, and thus lose its ability to build consensus around issues like the death penalty. As an organisation which explicitly excludes some of the most vulnerable of all — the 'unborn human' — from its campaign to 'Protect the Human', it leaves itself open to question.

Prochoice Amnesty means no choice for membersWe should be clear what is at stake here. Amnesty’s abandonment of its neutral stance on abortion will exclude those whose religious beliefs lead them to a position of conscience opposing abortion. It will weaken the ability of Amnesty to work effectively in many parts of the third world. It will identify Amnesty as a secular, partisan, first world body, playing into hands of, for example, Islamic radicals looking to discredit human rights activism as a Western driven agenda. It will weaken the campaign against capital punishment in the United States by driving a wedge between its two most vocal institutional critics, the Catholic Church and Amnesty. It could embroil Amnesty in campaigns against abortion laws in countries such as Ireland or in Latin America.

As a Catholic I find it particularly sad to see Amnesty go down the path of abortion advocacy. Amnesty was founded in 1961 by an English Catholic, Peter Benenson, who died last year. Amnesty and the Church have worked together in many areas. Here in Australia, Amnesty and the Church stood together in the campaign against the execution of the Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, in Singapore in 2005.

Amnesty played an important role in the campaign to gain the freedom of Australian priest and social activist Fr Brian Gore who was jailed in the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos in 1983. Defending the rights of refugees and asylum seekers has also been an area of common endeavour. I do not question the sincerity of those pushing for Amnesty to abandon its neutrality on abortion, but I do question their judgment about the impact of such a decision on a body dedicated to protecting prisoners of conscience, and I worry about a consultation process that seemed secretive and lacking in respect, even at the highest levels, for those who in conscience hold a view that abortion is an attack on the human rights of the most vulnerable members of the human family.



submit a comment

Existing comments

I don't agree. I think Amnesty should be pro-choice. First let us defend the rights of the born.

Alan Peters | 17 May 2007  

I am amazed that Amnesty would attempt to push through changes in this fashion. It is antithetical to the manner in which they operate, and unethical.

Ralph D. | 17 May 2007  

there is quite a difference between campaigning for decriminalising abortion and advocating for abortion. Failure to see the difference ends up simplifying deeply complex human issues

Angela Ballard | 17 May 2007  

Despite priding myself on being firmly anti-abortion, but still pro-choice (I think its occurrence is a tragedy at every level, and everything should be done to prevent it - but I recognise the right of women to make this decision for themselves) - I have to agree with you that Amnesty's decision to abandon their neutral policy is a bad idea.

Thanks for bringing this to our attention - I read every newspaper daily and I hadn't read about this.

Aurora Lowe | 17 May 2007  

I'm very, VERY happy to hear of Amnesty International's decision to call for abortion to be decriminalised globally. They have my FULL SUPPORT!

Bettina van der Werf | 17 May 2007  

Neutrality on an issue such as abortion is essential to maintaining the focus of Amnesty which it has consistently espoused and in retaining the membership which has allied itself with Amnesty.

mary condon | 17 May 2007  

This article is a big shock. If Amnesty proceed with this approach it will mean the end of my membership and my contributions-a very sad day indeed for me.

ron hill | 17 May 2007  

I agree with Angela Ballard that the distinction between decriminalising abortion and advocating abortion is quite great. Amnesty's proposal should not alarm those who are opposed to abortion.

Clive Monty | 17 May 2007  

Amnesty International has for some time being losing its way and its purpose. Consider the Australian branch. For years it has allowed Ruddock to parade himself, AI pin in lapel, as an advocate of human rights. Imagine: one of the children-overboard fabricators and children-in-detention advocates an honoured AI member! Ruddock, AI, is also one of those who connived with the unjust imprisonment and torture of David Hicks and others by Bush. What did AI do about it? Did the other members kick Ruddock out?

Gabe Lomas | 17 May 2007  

Thirty years ago, I would have agreed happily but, now, our Church is approaching irrelevance and Amnesty would have more sympathy than the Church.

It has been said before, of course and by many, that if men fell pregnant the teachings may well be different. It is way past the time when we should begin listening to women.

Bill Dowsley | 17 May 2007  

Thank you for bringing this change of opinion to our attention. I support human rights for all - even unborn humans. I can no longer support an organization that shows this inconsitency to so vulnurable a group as the unborn.

charlietimmins | 17 May 2007  

A decision to advocate decriminalising abortion
would seem to be a decision prompted by compassion. Most certainly such a decision does not advocate abortion. In the same way decriminalising the use of marijuana cannot sensibly be regarded as advocating its use.

David D. | 17 May 2007  

As an old woman with a large family 9 pregnancies and 8 live births before the eldest was 11 in days when the church says contraception is a sin. I almost died giving birth to my last child in a place with very few medical facilities and no emergency. I do not advocate abortion but I believe that people, including Popes and anyone other than the woman involved should allow a woman to make her own decision without condemnation - look what has happened to a young woman here in the last week where she tried to put her baby in safe hands. If men got pregnant there would be a lot more abortions. Just say a prayer for women in difficult situations. Margaret

margasret o'reilly | 17 May 2007  

Such a decision heralds the end of Amnesty as the most highly respected human rights organisation in the world. It is a tragedy of the greatest magnitude.

Ern Azzopardi | 17 May 2007  

A Church approaching irrelevance? More than a billion adherents world-wide to Catholicism would gently disagree. The issue here is to be consistent and avoid hyprocrisy. The acknowledgement that a human (whether foetus,neonate, juvenile or geriatric - or at any stage of vulnerability) is valuable, has rights and is worthy of love and protection. It is vital to support women so that they will not need to resort to abortion, which is too often the result of feeling cornered and without options. Often abortions are procured by the pressures of violent relationships, poor finances, or even a hostile or judgemental family, society or workplace. This is not true choice, it is desperation. Supporting women truly means societal change. Attitudes which say abortion is fine and a useful solution, lets every person "off the hook", as the real triggers are ignored.

Amnesty needs to remain neutral and we all need to explore ways to reduce this scourge upon women and their unborn babies. Keeping a stance which recognises the value of the unborn keeps the status of women when pregnant as important, rather than a "problem".

SYD | 17 May 2007  

I believe abortion is a bad thing. Bad for the woman and thoroughly bad for the unborn. I'd even go so far as to say it can be morally objectionable. But all that is my view and I have no right, and nor does the State, to dictate to another person what they may do with their bodies.
Criminalising abortion could be said to be creating political prisoners who hold an opposing view on the ethical merits of abortion. So logically Amnesty might be required to argue in favour of decriminalisation. It doesn't have to support a broadly pro-choice position... just an anti-criminal penalty position.

Marion Barker | 17 May 2007  

Criminalising abortion to defend the rights of cells that have the potential to become a human being is absolutely insane. So many impoverished countries that can't feed their own let alone an increase in population is cruelty.

Individual circumstances vary so that needs to be factored in globally and women should not be the slaves of opinion of men in the church who have little concept of what it means for women. Thankyou Amnesty

Mary | 17 May 2007  

I endorse the comments of Chris Middleton. The ‘neutral’ policy that states: "Amnesty International takes no position on whether or not women have a right to choose to terminate unwanted pregnancies; there is no generally accepted right to abortion in international human rights law.” seems much more appropriate and should be continued.

R Tait | 17 May 2007  

Re Alan Peters 17 May comment,

How can there be peace, if a mother can kill her own child?

Chris OBrien | 17 May 2007  

This is about recognising women's rights as human rights. There are now a number of international agreements that recognise that access to safe and lawful abortion is an important right for women, to enable them to protect their reproductive health. Amnesty International's new position on abortion is reflecting this. Around 70,000 women die or are injured in developing countries each year due to women not having the right to safe and lawful abortion. Amnesty are not saying that every woman with an unplanned pregnancy should terminate, just that women, who do not beleive that they can continue their pregnancy, can access safe, legal reproductive health services.

caitc | 17 May 2007  

This is about recognising women's rights as human rights. There are now a number of international agreements that recognise that access to safe and lawful abortion is an important right for women, to enable them to protect their reproductive health. Amnesty International's new position on abortion is reflecting this. Around 70,000 women die or are injured in developing countries each year due to women not having the right to safe and lawful abortion. Amnesty are not saying that every woman with an unplanned pregnancy should terminate, just that women, who do not beleive that they can continue their pregnancy, can access safe, legal reproductive health services.

caitc | 17 May 2007  

What a huge noise are so called "pro-choice" supporters making. I often wonder whether the reason they're so vocal against basic Christian principles, is that they have a quite different agenda to follow.

martad | 17 May 2007  

"Cells that have the POTENTIAL to become a human being?" Please, let's agree on the scientific definition of what constitues a human being, otherwise we are not able to discuss what rights flow from BEING a human being. We are now at the advanced point of scientific knowledge to recognise that the in-utero baby (from the time pregnancy is confirmed) has individual DNA, separate blood-type, its own gender, its own heart-beat, fingerprints etc all separate and distinct from its mother - and different from all others on the planet. Just like a newborn, and just like a 90- year-old. Okay, now let's discuss whether Amnesty should remain neutral in relation to the criminalisation of the taking of the human rights of these tiny humans, unfortunately for some, encased inside another's body. Sometimes these tiny humans are encased inside a humi-crib. If these unborn or prematurely born are not cared for, charges apply - the same way that anyone's life is considered valuable enough to be protected in law. Yours too. The State dictates that nobody can take another human being's life. What we need to do is make a society, on a world-scale, which nurtures and treasures pregnant women - so that nobody makes them ever want or feel pressured to have an abortion. Is this so unreasonable?

SYD | 18 May 2007  

Re Alan Peters 17 May comment,

How can there be peace, if a mother can kill her own child?

Chris OBrien | 18 May 2007  

it is amazing how the only human rights that are real ones are those that belong to men. Women's are seen to be optional, and here the suggestion is that they should feel badly - having been recognised as fully human by Amnesty - about those whose "consciences" lead them to oppose as unconsciencable the decision-making of women they have never even met.

My own view would be that any organisation of true conscience needs to recognise the consciences of individuals, yes, even those of women. This is what Amnesty has done. It is not Amnesty that needs to be questioned, but the hypocritical thinking of a church that refuses to recognise the full humanity of women, and their moral agency as rational adults, that needs shutting down.

Leslie Cannold | 18 May 2007  

Amnesty is a wonderful organisation and does indispensable work. Having always believed that life is a seamless garment from the womb to the tomb, I'll have to channel my support to some other life-saving cause if A.I. changes. Pity.

G Monaghan | 18 May 2007  

I read this column as I do post grad research on the topic of abortion grief for women. If these women had rights to be heard perhaps the polemic of pitting mother against child and man against woman in a battle for precedence would have more human compassion and less ideological blindness.

I work with women who have been so hurt by abortion that their voices (and often their lives) are silenced by the rhetoric. We are all in this together. How we care for our most defenceless speaks volumes about what we value. I long for the day that women are no longer forced to choose between their own future and that of their child. Lets give women real choices.

jo l | 18 May 2007  

To not argue for the decriminalisation of an activity is to accept that it should be seen as a criminal activity, a decidedly non-neutral stance.
This board decision is logically consistent with a neutral position; that the subject is the abortion of human life is tragic, but abortion should nevertheless remain outside the coercive authority of the State.

David Arthur | 18 May 2007  

Well said Jo L. What we should be working towards is a situation where women are not pitted against men, nor the rights of the mother against the rights of the child.

Ross | 18 May 2007  

A desperate woman leaves her new-born baby on the hospital steps. Instead of great compassion (which many women feel for her) the male editor of a newspaper prints an extremely judgmental front page headline. The prime minister in his christian, male view supports this act as do other males on TV and radio. I am horrified. I have no doubt at all what Jesus' response to that woman would be. I then read your article in which, because you hold strong anti-abortion views, you attempt to influence the membership of such a wonderful organization as Amnesty International. men have no idea --- listen to women. Amnesty is not advocating abortion, just trying to stop it being seen as a crime. The only aspect of the Catholic Church that gets my respect is the membership that fights for social justice. Please continue to challenge the young men you teach about issues of social justice and remind them that they should have great respect and regard for the wisdom of their mothers, sisters, future partners and wives.

Trish C | 18 May 2007  

The article contains the sentence: 'As a Catholic I find it particularly sad to see Amnesty go down the path of abortion advocacy.' I do not read Amnesty's policy change as ADVOCATING abortion.

John Hiller | 18 May 2007  

Surely if they change their constitution to make it a policy then that constitutes support john hiller?

Andy | 18 May 2007  

Thankyou for an excellent article. I am appauled at the decision. For what is supposed to be a group about human lives,dignity and respect this gross inconsistency will see me,as a teacher never again support this group or encourage student support. Every human being begins in the womb.Now it is the most 'endorsed' life threatening place in the world.

Camille C | 18 May 2007  

I think this article has missed the whole point of Pro-choice - it is exacly that - having a choice. By having a choice the individual can make thier own decsions about their own body.

Do you not understand that by being Pro-choice, you may not ever want to have an abortion personally, but you are allowing other women to have options.

I am a firm believer in a woman having the right to her own autonomy. We are not still living in the dark ages where women were considered possessions of men? What about victims of rape or incest?

What if the woman would suffer emotionally or physically from the pregnancy or birth of the child? Are you aware of how many women die in the developing world due to underground abortion proceedures?

I understand that many of you may be firm anti-abortionists, if so try to have educated stance, not just a hazy misconception of pro-life. Its about time Amenesty moved with the times. GO AMNESTY!

Jacqui McDonnell | 18 May 2007  

My wife & I are old enough to remember this debate 40 to 50 years ago when abortion advocacy was in its beginnings.

The slippery slope since then has well and truly resulted in the present position of legalised abortion in this country.We wonder how long before we get to the Chinese policy position of mandated abortion.

Also,as an allegedly educated society, we still seem to ignore the well established 'signs' of fertility for women. Instead of polemics maybe we should be emphasisng these facts to all our young people.

Brian Larsson | 18 May 2007  

As a young woman, the very thought of abortion was abhorrent to me. As I've matured and had children of my own, I have learned how much harder children can make life, especially if they are not born healthy and whole - let's face it, they don't come with a guarantee.

Despite societal changes, women generally still contribute the most to child-rearing, so I think it stands to reason that they should have the most say in whether or not they are prepared to do the child-bearing.

People who would criminalise a woman for admitting she is not up to the task obviously place more importance on the quantity of children born than they do on the quality of parenting given to those children.

Wendy | 18 May 2007  

I quote Mother Teresa: the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion … if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? … Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion … It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.

Peter | 18 May 2007  

Abortion is a sad event which will occur when women are desperate enough. Ethically, Amnesty has chosen the lesser of 2 evils. Terminations are carried out in a clinically safe environmnt are less likely to result in the death of BOTH the mother and the embryo/foetus.

Patricia Rego | 18 May 2007  

The response to this article indicates, I think, how much we in the Church desperately need to have an open and honest debate about this thorny issue which just won't go away (Thank you yet again Eureka Street!). My problem with the Church's teaching is that the Church takes a black-and-white, purist approach which just won't stand up in the real world. I often think in this context of a woman I once knew whose first child was born with a terrible degenerative disease which was also likely to show up in any future children she had. Hence, in subsequent pregnancies she would always undergo a test and, if it seemed certain that the child would have the condition, she would have an abortion. I can't say I blamed her in the least. I often wonder what Church leaders (and other opponents of abortion) would do if a woman in that position came to them and said that she would go ahead and have the child, provided that they would guarantee to give her all the help she needed, for as long as she needed it? It's all very well to say that women should get sufficient help and support, but just saying it isn't much help to those left to carry the load!

As for Amnesty International's position: I agree with the viewpoint that there is a difference between campaigning for decriminalisation and advocating for abortion, but it seems that a lot of people are just not going to accept the difference, so unfortunately AI is in a very diffiult situation!

Cathy Taggart | 18 May 2007  

I am a religious education teacher and a supporter of Amnesty International.We have a justice group within the school and have been affiliated with the youth section of Amnesty.I totally agree with the comments of Chris Middleton.A perceived pro abortion stance from Amnesty will blur many other issues and provide ammunition for those opposed to Amnesty.Here in Northern Ireland Amnesty has been viewed by some as having a pro republican stance due to the work of the organisation in highlighting justice issues during the conflict in Ireland over the last thirty years.Some fundamentalist Christians here will portray a pro abortion stance as further evidence of Amnesty's non neutral stance.

Martin Donaldson | 19 May 2007  

Having contacted Amnesty International to avoid making a knee-jerk decision to cancel my membership and financial contributions, I think that their view deserves to be aired.

Basically, they believe that in abandoning their previously neutral stance towards abortion, it will faciliate their broader goal to counter "Violence against Women", in this case, sexual violence.

They see the freedom of access to safe abortions as a right of women, especially those who are faced with unwanted pregnancies as a result of aggravated rape. Whilst their view is well intentioned, I believe it is untenable on two grounds.

Firstly, as violence against women is such a scourge on the worldwide community, surely more should be done to curb the behavior of men. Violence against women by abandoning the neutral stance on abortion, will merely permit men to abdicate all responsibility they have to control themselves, as they see abortion as a easy means avoid an unwanted pregnancy, yet still engage in dysfunctional sexual behaviour. The circle of violence will merely be perpetrated.

Secondly, the violence against women will continue to be perpetrated against unborn females. In an implicit way, AI's stance will legitimises the practice of sex-selective abortions in China, Indian and several Middle Eastern countries, which have traditionally expressed a cultural preference for males. This practice, with the use of ultrasounds has caused countless millions of female foetuses to be killed, often at the behest of males. AI's stance does nothing to address this severe violence against females.

It is with great sadness and regret that I reliquish my financial support towards Amnesty International.

Neil | 19 May 2007  

In reply to Neil (19th. May), I would like to suggest that he (and anyone who takes a similar view) consider this scenario: Imagine that you and a number of other people in your area have come down with a mysterious illness, and it turns out that the illness is being caused by pollution from a neighbouring factory. You and the other sufferers go along to the local hospital for treatment, but the doctor there says, "Sorry, but although we have the medical means to treat you, we are not going to do so, as that would just encourage the owners of the factory to think that it's OK to pollute." Would you really think that that was a reasonable stance?

Cathy Taggart | 20 May 2007  

I strongly disagree with Amnesty International's decision to abandon their neutral policy. Let the unborn live. I can no longer support Amnesty.

Joy | 20 May 2007  

In response to Cathy, I would like her to properly consider the applicability of the analogy drawn. In terms of logic and reason it seems very far removed from the current situation.
Firstly, the point that is being made is to either lobby the factory to close down, or change its practices to prevent the pollution - a point that Cathy seems to have totally missed.

Secondly, the anology is predicated on the flawed premise that an unwanted pregnancy is a medical ailment that warrants treatment.

Thirdly, the point about discrimination towards female foetuses has been overlooked. AI will never be able to maintain a coherent stance against female abortion (and in some cases, by extension female infanticide) if they depart from their neutral policy on abortion. This is something that has suprisingly been missed by many, especially considering that the reason for their departure on the traditional stance is because of violence against women.

Neil | 20 May 2007  

The author responds

My article was intended to focus on two main issues relating to the effectiveness and processes of Amnesty.

The first was that by abandoning its neutral position on abortion, an area that arouses such intense emotion and in which there is no shortage of of groups advocating pro-choice or pro-life positions, Amnesty is becoming exclusive in a way that will weaken its work. It had an almost unique role in being able to attract left and right, conservative and liberal, religious and secular support for issues around freedom of conscience and political rights - now that is in danger of unravelling at a number of levels. Cooperation with Catholics against capital punishment will be weakened.
Its ability to gain support amongst religious Muslims will be diminished. the potential for conflict with the Catholic church in Latin America and other areas will grow. It runs the risk of becoming just another left secular voice. Many catholic schools around the country have Amnesty groups - many of us pay teachers to mentor such groups, Catholic Religious Studies textbooks often encourage membership of Amnesty and provide an internet link. All that will probably end now - and for what advantage?

Almost as troubling is the process. It has been largely secretive.
Even now I am told that it is hard to get to see the details of the actual new policy as members have been told it is an internal document! The Australian representative at the recent meeting assured the group that support for the change in policy came after wide consultation including with members,church and community groups.

That is not certainly my impression from active members I have heard from.And it is certianly not the impression one gets from looking at the Amnesty websites and the lack of discussion on the issue.

Opponents of the change have not had their viewpoints respected and indeed I know of a case where a member of very good standing was laughed at and jeered for speaking their conscience. The Tablet in Britain has reported concerns about attitudes to abortion becoming a litmus test for employment by Amnesty there, and a consultation with members in Britain after the body there supported the change from a neutral position, which showed a majority against the change, was ignored.Last year, at one point, the US body refused to even state its position prior to the international meeting of presidents.

It is sad to see the organisation take a seemingly unsympathetic view of conscience on this very difficult issue.

chris middleton | 20 May 2007  

The goal of AI is to draw attention to the abuse of human rights by mobilising public opinion against the perpetrators and in this instance violence against women. It is not condoning abortion rather it is taking the stance that the long history of violence against women must be stopped and that women are not to be viewed as no more than property. In this instance AI has acted in the most responsible way.They are to be congratulated.

john hill | 21 May 2007  

If I may reply to Neil's reply to me: the point I was trying to make was that, while of course you need long-term action to tackle the underlying causes of a social evil, you also need short-term measures to relieve people's immediate suffering. In fact, this relates to what I said in my earlier post: if Church leaders (and others) are adamant that abortion is not an option, why are they not doing a lot more to provide practical help and support to women who feel they cannot cope with having a child?

I didn't comment on Neil's other point because I really didn't know what to say: I honestly don't know whether Amnesty's new stance will be seen as legitimising sex-selecive abortions.

Having said all that, I must say I rather hope that AI decides NOT to change its stance on abortion, as this change will obviously backfire very badly on a hitherto widely-respected and very effective organisation.

Cathy Taggart | 21 May 2007  

Thank you, Chris Middleton for your article on Amnesty's change of policy regarding abortion. As a pregnancy counsellor who has listened to hundreds of women either pregnant or post-abortive, I know for a fact that the endorsement of abortion by federal and state governments (through Medicare funding), the AMA, the judiciary and the vehement lobbying by socialist groups has put intolerable pressure on people experiencing an unexpected pregnancy.

Calling abortion a "right" does not make it so.

How can AI support abortion (because this is what it is doing in effect) when every year thousands of Chinese women are forced to undergo it - often at childbirth?

Abortion is the greatest human rights abuse of all because it violently destroys the life of our youngest, most innocent and helpless members of the community.

For anyone experiencing a crisis pregnancy, post abortion grief and/or interested to learn the truth about abortion and its consequences, I invite you to look at the extensive independent research on
www.afterabortion.org, the website of the Elliot Institute.

Gabriel | 21 May 2007  

I was deeply concerned about the latest development in Amnesty. As a keen supporter of Amnesty I will certainly resign my membership but absolutely amazed that Amnesty cannot see what they are doing by moving Amnesty away from a neutral stance on abortion. The people in Amnesty who are pushing this change through clearly have no idea how weakened will Amnesty be worldwide and surely we need Amnesty so much in today's world.

Kevin Treston | 21 May 2007  

All catholics should follow the lead of Bishop Evans and resign from Amnesty if itdoes not support the unborn without equivocation.

Bill Barry | 21 May 2007  

This supposed distinction between advocacy and "decriminalisation" is bulldust. Someone who thinks everyone should have access to guns is a gun advocate. Someone who thinks we all should be able to buy heroin is a heroin advocate. It would be absurd in either case to claim that this isn't advocacy because they're not arguing tht heroin or guns should be compulsory. And someone who supported Chinese-style compulsory abortion would certainly not be styled simply an "abortion advocate"!

Lyle | 21 May 2007  

I direct debit to AI every month. When I first heard of these possible changes (via a Sunday Tele column by Cardinal Pell, & not via any info I get from AI), I emailed the national & ACT AI contacts saying I would cease this if they changed their policy to being pro-abortion. I got a reply, but nothing then or since indicating whether Australian AI had changed its position, and if so what precisely to. Its disingenuous, that, again, I only hear about the International & Australian positions via the media, not from AI itself.

It's appalling the internationally AI has changed its position to opposing the rights of unborn children. This alone completely undermines it's credibility as an advocate for human rights (what next, will it become pro-death penalty??). AI's secretiveness about this, even to its own donors, shows that it knows it has done the wrong thing.

For myself, I hesitate initially to cease donating to AI, since Australian AI has at least "not reached a decision" (what does that mean, Chris Middleton?). But the secretiveness & the International position does oblige me to cease donating, & I will do this before the week is out unless I hear better news.

Brendan | 21 May 2007  

Side stepping this issue: My greater concern is the lack of noise about Phillipp Ruddock literally wearing his Amnesty membership as a badge of honour.

Our Federal Attorney General whose actions - or lack of - over David Hicks was condemned by ALL his State Attorneys General.

AS Immigration Minister he presided over deliberate demonising, lying about and damage to hundreds of innocent people in OUR name. Yes, let's look after the born!

Kate Maclurcan | 22 May 2007  

i support the view that Amnesty International should REFRAIN from changing its stance on abortion. I would not as a Christian be able to support their work if they became pro-abortion.
Christine Hodges BSc. Dip Ed.

Christine Hodges | 23 May 2007  

I thought one of Amnesty's purposes was to try to protect the rights of those that were not in a position to protect their own?
If I could protect myself there is no purpose for such organisations such as Amnesty International!
At what point do I suddenly gain 'Status' as a 'Human Being' worthy of recognition (& protection)?
A 'Baby' or 'Foetus' I consider is the most vulnerable 'person' on the planet - He/She is totally dependant on another Human Being for survival.
What is the magic date that Amnesty International considers a 'foetus suddenly transforms into a 'Human Being'?
I'm 34, How old are you?
What happens if our Mothers decided to be pro choice and kill us now?
What is the difference between that and killing us before we were born?...
At least this way we get to experience life?
I here so much about 'RIGHTS' these days but surely this should be balanced with 'OBLIGATIONS'
One thing I know is that regardless of what life throws at me, regardless of my parents socio-economic position, beleif structure, bla bla... it is good to be alive and experience life and to make a difference!
...Actually I thought that's sort of what Amnesty International was about - making a difference... well may be... making a difference in some situations...George Orwell comes to mind - All Animals are Equal - BUT some Animals are MORE Equals Than OTHERS!..Makes you think (unless you happen to be Sub-Human at the time of writing by a period of of 1 day - 9 months - in which case all I can say is "I hope your Mom likes you!")

Bruce Cameron | 23 May 2007  

Amnesty International needs to stay with its core purpose.They will forever lose their way and effectiveness if they do not remain neutral.

Mark Holland | 24 May 2007  

I am amazed that we have not heard of these changes as members of Amnesty International.
I have read the article and the responses. For those of us who oppose abortion, mainly on the grounds of "human rights" which AI defends in other circustances, a painful decision will need to be made. To stay in (at least for some time) and try to reverse this crazy decision or to quit in protest.

Peter Ofner | 25 May 2007  

Many women in the world are not catholic and therefore should have the right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy. From a woman's point of view it is, in the majority of cases, the last choice but often due to circumstances the only one. Safe termination at an early stage is at least the best choice in a very difficult time.

sue miles | 25 May 2007  

I have been a christian ethicist for many years, even a teaching moral theologian, and I am not able to understand why Chris Middleton is so upset because Amnesty International calls for abortion to be decriminalised as I believe it should be. Amnesty simply states a position which recognises the facts about abortion and the realities of legal systems.Chris exagerates their position out of all proportion so he can score points against them when he talks about Amnesty going down the path of abortion advocacy.Ethicists who exagerate or mis-state the arguments of others in this sort of way indicate that the arguments they favour are not very good.Has Chris really thought carefully about the social and ethical consequences for societies in which abortion is criminalised.Or does he want it criminalised throughout Australia.If he does, he must want many of the mothers of children at his school to have criminal records.

I simply do not understand why he thinks that things he believes to be immoral should therefore be criminal.

Gerry Costigan | 26 May 2007  

A full & comphrehensive dealing of the abortion issue - both pro & anti.
But the real issue was maintaining the appeal of AI to the maximum number of persons worldwide.
AI could have continued to oppose violence against women without disenfranchising a large proportion of the world - by means of its previous neutral policy.
The Catholic Church has done a lot to address the issues surrounding the need for abortion. But I would hope that one day soon they would allow contraception as a logical policy which does not result in any termination of LIFE.

Gordon ARNOLD | 27 May 2007  

I disagree with how the consultation of the amendment has been handled, ie not informing all that should be to partake in decisionmaking process.
And, the reason for the change has not been made clear. To a point I agree that decriminalising abortion would give women in extreme circumstances an option that may save her own life. The other side is the discrimination of foetal sex or family influence that does not have the women's or unborn child's best interest at heart.
Would be interested to know the reason behind the change of policy.

SMR | 27 May 2007  

This is extremely frighting. If Amnesty sees abortion as a ‘right’ and access to it as a freedom than that can only mean that, far from acting neutrally, they are bound to campaign against states that wish to protect their women from it.

Chris Wolter | 28 May 2007  

The moving finger having write moves on.
By writing this into the AI policy they have writen me out.

Damian Murphy | 28 May 2007  

Whatever stance you take on this issue, to suggest that the decision-making process was kept hidden from the membership of Amnesty International Australia is incorrect. All NSW members, for example, were invited to discuss the matter and to have their positions noted at the AGM last year. I know because I was there, facilitating the presentation and discussion, as the then NSW Vice-President. Moreover, all members were invited to, and some did, submit further feedback individually. This stretched back years, actually, at various fora internationally and in Australia, to which members were invited. Also, Fr Middleton's comments about the focus on prisoners of conscience is dated. The organisation has regularly updated and broadened its mandate (the death penalty was not part of its original remit, for example) and moved to a 'full-spectrum' approach to human rights in 2001. There are other ongoing changes to Amnesty's approach that are debated by its membership and it is not hard to learn about them from the local Amnesty Branch. I disagree with some of what Amnesty does and I share concerns that it does not listen to and talk with the human rights community as much as it should, but among large international NGOs it does retain a sense of engagement with its supporters that is admirable. I humbly suggest it is more democratic than the Catholic Church.

Damien Spry | 28 May 2007  

Of course AI's new abortion stance is not neutral. According to Ms Widney Brown, Amnesty's international director of policy, the policy called for decriminalisation of abortion and access to secure abortions for pregnancies resulting from sexual violence, or those that risk the mother's life or health.

According to her, "if a woman is raped and doesn't have access to abortion, that's cruel and degrading treatment."
I'm sorry Gerry Costiagan & Co. but if this is not abortion advocacy then what is?

Also, as an aside, Gordon Arnold speaks of contraception as not terminating life. But doesn't chemical contraception often act as an abortifacient?

Peter | 28 May 2007  

The Age ran a piece on this today by Barny Zwartz.
The piece is here -


andrew smythe | 28 May 2007  

May I respond to Damien Spry's comments, as his is the first response from within Amnesty, as it were.
I became aware of the proposed change in Amnesty policy last year, after it was raised with me by a senior member concerned about its implications.

I wrote an article in the school newsletter about it. I also sent it into the consultation process. I was surprised then, as I have been more recently, by the number of Amnesty members who have said that this was the first time they knew of the proposed change. I'm not sure whether the invitation for consultation was within its campaign Stop Violence Against Women, but I can assure Damien that it did not seem to reach everyone.

The National President of Amnesty, Georgina Perry, has said that the change in policy came after thorough internal discussion and debate, and that relevant external stakeholders were consulted. Although she acknowledges that there has been a long and productive partnership with the Catholic church, I am unaware of consultations here in Australia. Certainly I would beinterested to know if any thought was given to consulting the 500 Amnesty groups in Catholic schools. At the meeting of Amnesty Presidents in Portugal last year my understanding was that the Australian section indicated it had not reached a decision on the change (unlike most Western groups).

What has changed since then? was there a vote on the issue among members - if so when was the result published? It does seem difficult to find any report on the consultation process. I am told, however, that at a recent meeting in victoria, it was said that Australia had actually supported the change in policy a few weeks ago.In Britain there appeared to be similar issues, and my undertstanding is that at a recent AGM a majority voted against Amnesty abandoning its neutral policy.

In the US the section there would not even release its position prior to the Portugal meeting. The new policy appears to be difficult to get hold of. It is not on Amnesty websites and when the executive Officer of the Catholic Social Justice Commission, an Amnesty member, asked for a copy last week, he was told it was an internal document.

It appears that there is a process of damage control in place. Bishop Michael Evans, a member for 30 years in Britain, describes it as a secretive process. Ironically Amnesty finds itself in the position of offending governments facing letter campaigns etc.

With regards to Damien's comment about my dated focus on Amnesty as about prisoners of conscience, I am aware of the 'full-spectrum' approach, and readily acknowledge that the abortion change could be seen as a logical extension of this. i would say, however, that in the popular mind, Amnesty's name and mandate is linked far more to the dated approach. The symbol of the candle with the barbed wire represents this (perhaps it should be changed to update the image)and if you go to google under Amnesty International's tag it reads: "Protecting human rights worldwide, AI focuses on the release of prisoners of conscience, fair and prompt trials for all political prisoners and the ..." Certainly this is how Amnesty is largely experienced by students and their letter writing campaigns.

As I said in my article I do not question the sincerity of the proponents of change, and i have not advocated the issue as a debate about abortion. But the logic of the 2001 shift has led to the point where the big tent of Amnesty is under serious threat. You do not have to agree with every position to be in Amnesty, but for many people, and for groups sponsored by instutions such as mine, entering into the field of abortion is crossing the rubicon, for now, implicitly at the very least, any consideration of the human rights of the most vulnerable members of our society is denied.

At the very time when Amnesty's annual report has been released we are discussing its abortion policy. And i note too, that the report unfortunately seems to make no mention of the continued policy of forced abortions in China, even though the organisation has a strong record on this issue as part of its campaign against violence against women.

May I also make a short response to Gerry Costigan's comments. I am no ethicist just a history teacher. His comment about mothers at my school was not one of the noblest comments I have heard in ethical debate. I was not trying to score points against Amnesty. I acknowledged the sincerity of views on the other side. i was unaware that I was even arguing against the decriminalisation of abortion. What I was saying was that Amnesty had little to gain and much to lose by entering the field of abortion rights.

I am against violence against women and i am against violence against the unborn. How society manages such a clash of rights is not easy, and it will only get harder. Will we allow abortion on the basis of gender (predominantly female), or campaign for the rights of the disabled while allowing the targetting of those with disability in the womb, or if the genes determining sexual orientation are identified will abortion for orientation be legal?

chris Middleton | 29 May 2007  

One thing that has not been noted: does this mean that AI will list illegal abortion as a human rights abuse? Will this count against countries?

Where will they draw the line? Homosexual marriage? Banning Circumcision - both male and female? Tattooing? Permitting infanticide in line with Singerian ethics?

On the moral issue of abortion, many feel that they have a moral duty to prevent abortion. By this decision AI has certainly demonstrated that it does not really belief in freedom for tender consciences. This really invalidates their raison d'etre.

Bear | 29 May 2007  

Thank you, Chris, for pointing out that I made an ignoble comment. I apologise for that.I pressed the " go" button without reading what I had typed too fast. I do argue in favour of decriminalisation and I believe that a person who is strongly opposed to abortion can quite reasonably argue that way. It does seem that in the last day or so some people have extended the Amnesty position beyond decriminalisation and thus, moving the goalposts, as it were, they have changed the subject for discussion.

Gerry Costigan | 31 May 2007  

I was very sad to hear this news about sanctioning abortion as it takes a stand in contradiction to the wonderful work Amnesty has done over the years in many fields without fear or prejudice. I pray that this resolution receives further open discussion before a final decision. I want to continue with the work of Amnesty but do not want to promote such contradiction.

mary gilchrist | 07 June 2007  

there has been an astonishing response to Chris Middleton's very balanced article, the responses ranging right across the range of fundamentalist shock at AI's ne position to firm disagreement with Chris's conclusions. The support by AI for decriminalisation certainly is not advocacy for abortion on demand, and it seems strange that some of us, in a country where abortion has long been decriminalised, should consider withdrawing support from AI when the great body of their work deals with advocacy for the freeing of political prisoners and the just treatment of refugees, and the rest.The words of Bishop Evans are worth repeating here: “The world needs Amnesty International. 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.
The withdrawal of support by outraged Catholics will damage AI and very likely will not bring about a change in its position. Surely, following the compassionate example of Jesus we can keep our hearts open to the plight of the victims of injustice and urge those holding the belief that abortion is intolerable to accept that their definition of perfection is not for everyone. It would be tragic to damage the great work that AI has in hand all around the globe over a single facet of human rights that is contentious.

mike foale | 21 June 2007  

I note that Daniel Berrigan, veteran US Jesuit peace activist, has withdrawn his support for Amnesty because of this decision. He said he was drawn to Amnesty because of its activity on behalf of the powerless, but that no one is more powerless than the child in the womb. "I was quite shaken by this change," he said.

robin | 26 June 2007  

In taking this new stance on the issue of abortion, Amnesty International has done more harm than good; save a few but murder in the millions. How would those going pro-choice have liked to have been murdered in their mother's womb?

Jali | 24 July 2007  

Brave of you to parade around like this sitting behind the desk of well-to-do private school.

How about you have some empathy? Imagine you have just been raped by a soldier and you want the right to choose what to do. It's easy to win an argument when you think you have the moral high ground with God, but just contemplate being raped yourself. Take a step back and think.

Angie S. | 23 August 2007  

To believe that our church is now facing irrelevency is to believe in voodoo. Christ's unconditional love for us, expressed in being born in his image needs no more witness for protection to be afforded to God's living children.

Trevor J Bates | 27 August 2007  

Congratulations Father Chris. If anyone doubts the passion with which Australians value human life from conception to death, they only have to read the feedback submitted in response to your position. The few equivocal or negative comments reveal only the pain of those sincere people who have tried to fit the mould cast by the scribblers of political correctness.

Claude Rigney | 16 November 2007  

As a former Board member of Tasmanian Amnesty (1996) and active supporter of Aboriginal Land rights I feel you can't make a distinction as Fr Brennan seeks to make. Unfortunately Amnesty has shot itself in the foot and has allowed itself to become politicised on what is a profound internal conscience issue for every person, rather than an exterior human rights issue - human values verses governmental misuse of power.

Dr Michael Kidd | 22 November 2007  

I have always found the position of the Catholic Church regarding abortion to hypocritical. It purports to be pro child, yet it has been involved in the cover up of pedophilia within its own ranks.

I think it just as strange that the NSW state government is supporting World Youth Day for similar reasons.

How about some transparency - let us all call for the church to lift the lid on offending priests and employees first and then espouse values that support children.

Perhaps when women become valued and equal within the church - as priests and bishops - we may find a new paradigm within the church. Until then leave my body alone.

Nicole Emerson | 17 June 2008  

How can the church be anti abortion and anti contraception at the same time? It seems to make sense that the only way to make sure abortion does not happen is to provide every woman with free, effective and safe contraception - only then will there be no need for abortion.

nicole emerson | 17 June 2008  

I have some memory of my experience of my life in the womb and as a child would gladly have traded my life for the life i remembered experiencing in the womb. I remembered an existence of perfection, peace, serenity and profound connectedness. I am clear that this debate ( pro life / pro choice ) is something of this world. As someone who remembers and aspires to share and speak of the experience of their world,

Speaking from the experience I remember, I am clear that " The people of the womb " Would have nothing to say on this issue. It is both way beyond their comprehension and their comprehension is also way beyond this issue.

Richard Blinn | 24 April 2011  

I am an admirer of Amnesty International and the wonderful work it had done over many decades. As for the pro-life/pro-choice stand they have taken I personally their previous neutrality was a wise choice. I personally also take a neutral stand on this issue but I do take a stand for the unborn. I remember being in my mother's womb. The amazing life I remember inspires and motivates me to this day (and I am 59 years old). I have written a book (People of the Womb) recreating that pre-natal experience of life, as it would occur to a child in the womb, based on what I remember of the experience. My personal stand in this matter is to give the unborn a face; a tangible and undeniable expression of the richness of their lives for us all to see. peopleofthewomb.com

Richard Blinn | 16 September 2012  

Similar Articles

Playful irreverence in the Town Common

  • Richard Treloar
  • 18 May 2007

Was Triple J's Jesus impersonation contest in Melbourne's Federation Square on the day before Good Friday merely a revival of the 'carnivalesque' tradition of playful irreverence that is linked with a destruction and uncrowning related to birth and renewal.


Why militant anti-theism is a God-send

  • Scott Stephens
  • 18 May 2007

The term “atheist” seems too respectable for the position occupied by commentators such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. They are anti-theists, opposed in principle to every last attachment to the divine, leading many to accuse them of a kind of inverted fundamentalism that lacks the core modern virtue of tolerance or respect for others.