June 2007


A leading Australian newspaper has accused Amnesty International’s leaders of putting dogmatism over practical necessities at the expense of the developing world and warned that their victory in pushing through the policy would be a Pyrrhic one.

In a stinging editorial, The Age newspaper, one of the few mainstream newspapers to cover the issue, said that AI’s decision to advocate abortion as a human right, while knowing that it would alienate and fracture substantial part of its membership was detrimental to human rights work.

Can Amnesty really afford such a fracturing of its traditional support base? In an era defined by the compromises of realpolitik, it is almost breathtaking in its audacity.

The simple fact is that this move will imperil Amnesty’s activities in Third World countries, where the church is one of the few champions of the oppressed. To adopt a policy that by its very nature will alienate the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, along with members of other faiths and an unknown number outside the religious apparatus who consider abortion to be morally wrong, is an example of dogmatism overriding practical necessity.

Until now, much of this criticism has been leveled at AI from church groups, politicians and activists. The Age is one of Australia’s most respected newspapers and is the first major newspaper to criticize the organization in such strong terms. But the editorial of the Melbourne based publication went on to repeat warnings rehearsed by many other people, that AI had damaged its brand and risked losing its authority. It continued:

The world clearly needs Amnesty International. To argue it should confine itself to issues that fit uncontroversially under the human rights umbrella is not to deny that women’s rights are human rights. It is to recognise that to undermine a brand that until now has been unique in the respect it holds would fracture its support base and, along with it, its authority among the non-liberal majority of the globe.

If supporters splinter off the monolith that was Amnesty, etiolating its persuasiveness, its reproach – both silent and vocal – to abusers of human rights, any victory against the religious and moral objectors in its ranks will be Pyrrhic indeed.

The Catholic Church in Australia, a strong supporter of Amnesty International in the past, could be about to cut ties with the organization altogether following AI’s adoption of a new policy to advocate abortion.

Many Christians, especially Catholics, are expected to resign from the human rights organization and perhaps establish an alternative human rights organization because of the new policy. Some expect the Church in Australia to cut its ties with Amnesty altogether and the country’s church leaders have met to discuss the issue.

Many of AI’s 2.2 million members and supporters are church-based, including about 72,000 in Australia. Amnesty estimates that 500 Catholic schools in Australia have member groups, as do other Christian schools.

Amnesty’s international executive board adopted the policy last month as part of its campaign to curb violence against women. Previously Amnesty was neutral on abortion.

Fr. Chris Middleton, head of St Aloysius’ College in Sydney, told The Age newspaper that Amnesty’s Australian membership would be deeply hit by this policy decision.

He predicted that Amnesty’s Third World membership would be reduced to a partisan and ideologically exclusive group.

This new policy would also weaken the campaign against capital punishment in the United States by driving a wedge between its two most vocal critics, Amnesty and the Catholic Church, he said.

Amnesty has been criticized for its secrecy regarding this policy change. It had initially announced that it would have an international debate on this policy in Mexico City later this year, but its leadership council went ahead with the policy decision instead and many members of its own staff were left stunned when they heard the news from outside parties.