The Magazine

Abortion International

What AI now stands for.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Amnesty International has come in for some bad press recently. Can a human-rights organization be taken seriously when its annual report dwells more on abuses in America and England than in Belarus and Saudi Arabia? When it rebukes Israel far more often than Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt? Or when it asks who has the worst human-rights record among Darth Vader, Hobgoblin, and Dick Cheney?

As disconcerting as these problems are, Amnesty International's most egregious recent offense almost went unreported--and the organization wanted to keep it that way. Hidden on the members-only section of its website was the announcement of a new policy that condemns as a human-rights violator any country that does not allow broad access to abortion or punishes abortion providers.

"This policy will not be made public at this time," the website instructed its visitors. "There is to be no proactive external publication of the policy position or of the fact of its adoption issued." Amnesty International officials had good reason to want to keep this new policy quiet: It undermines their voice as global human-rights advocates, and they know it.

Perhaps that's why Amnesty International had preemptive talking points posted on the site too. The news was to be kept secret--but if the story got out anyway, members were to respond immediately: "Some media reports and individuals have claimed that AI promotes a 'human right to abortion.' This grossly misrepresents AI's policy on sexual and reproductive rights. AI takes no position on whether abortion is right or wrong, nor on whether or not abortion should be legal."

Of course, that's not true. The new policy calls on governments to "ensure access to abortion services to any woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape, sexual assault, or incest, or where a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman's life or a grave risk to her health." As the judicial history of abortion in the United States proves, the "health exemption" is an open invitation to unlimited abortion.

But, more directly, Amnesty International also calls for "the removal of all criminal penalties (including imprisonment, fines, and other punishments) against those seeking, obtaining, providing information about, or carrying out abortions." In fact, Amnesty International's commitment to abortion is so extreme that it explicitly opposes the federal ban on partial-birth abortion that the Supreme Court recently upheld.

To add insult to injury, Amnesty International thinks the public is stupid enough to buy its spin. Consider its repeated claim to take "no position as to when life begins." Of course, to demand that every country in the world allow abortion is to take a position: A human being's life does not begin--at least not in a way in which Amnesty International will permit any government on the planet to protect it--until after birth.

And while Amnesty International argues that abortion advocacy follows from its long-standing work to stop violence against women, I saw no signs that it considered whether abortion itself is simply one more attack on women. Though Amnesty International is against "forced abortions," the unspoken reality is that wherever these policy initiatives are adopted, boyfriends, husbands, and employers will be able to pressure women into getting abortions.

But even people who differ on these issues can see why Amnesty International's advocacy of abortion is a mistake. It severely weakens its ability to form broad coalitions of human-rights defenders. It makes Amnesty International indistinguishable from all the other standard-issue leftist organizations that cluster around international affairs. Worst of all, it will have disastrous consequences for relations with religious believers--especially Catholics--who will be forced to distance themselves from the organization's other work.

In fact, the Church has already responded. Soon after I publicized the new abortion policy on the First Things website, the news reached the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In an interview with the National Catholic Register, the Council's president, Renato Cardinal Martino, said that "individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support," since "by pushing for the decriminalization of abortion as part of their platform, Amnesty International has disqualified itself as a defender of human rights."

As expected, that caused quite a stir. In its official public response to the Vatican, Amnesty International repeated its spin about the policy being one of "decriminalization" and not a "right" to abortion. But it also plainly reiterated its commitment "to defend women's access to abortion, within reasonable gestational limits, when their health or human rights are in danger." Notice that the word "grave" wasn't included this time.

Amnesty International also took potshots at Catholics like Martino. Amnesty International--unlike the Catholic Church--exists to "protect citizens including the believer but [it does] not impose beliefs." Its work--unlike religious believers'--is all about "upholding human rights, not specific theologies." Its argument--unlike the pro-life one--"invokes the law and the state, not God." The statement ended with a pompous lecture that warned the Catholic Church "not to turn away from the suffering that women face because of sexual violence and urged the Catholic leadership to advocate tolerance and to respect freedom of expression for all human rights defenders, including Amnesty International, just as Amnesty International will continue to defend the freedom of religion."

Of course, Amnesty International's blustering response is ridiculous. The Church's teaching on abortion is not peculiarly Catholic. Pro-life reasoning requires no invocation of God, no specific theology, and no imposition of beliefs. Nor does articulating a coherent rational argument fail to show tolerance or respect for competing positions--even intellectually incoherent positions like Amnesty International's. And one has to wonder if Amnesty International can really think petitions for abortion rights amount to authentic care for women, while nuns like the Sisters of Life who take in and house pregnant women are merely turning a blind eye.

The pro-life community in the United States has always had genuine admiration for Amnesty International, particularly as the organization kept itself neutral in the abortion debates. But if it now insists on holding what pro-lifers see as a fundamentally flawed view of human rights, pro-lifers' trust in its other work will decline--indeed, it already has. Amnesty International is deluding itself if it thinks that this new support for an unlimited abortion license does not undermine the foundations of human rights and the broad coalition of support the organization once enjoyed.

Even Darth Vader and Hobgoblin could see that.

Ryan T. Anderson, a junior fellow at FIRST THINGS, is the assistant director of the program in bioethics and human dignity at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.