Amnesty and Abortion: after the International Council meeting in Mexico. Bishops Conference of England & Wales

18 August 2007

The International Council of Amnesty International met in Mexico from 11th-17th August, and issued a press release on 17th August which included the following paragraph:

With the prevention of violence against women as its major campaigning focus, Amnesty International’s leaders committed themselves anew to work for universal respect for sexual and reproductive rights. Amnesty International committed itself to strengthening the organisation’s work on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and other factors contributing to women’s recourse to abortion, and affirmed the organisation’s policy on selected aspects of abortion (to support the decriminalisation of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion, and to defend women’s access to abortion, within reasonable gestational limits, when their health or human rights are in danger), emphasising that women and men must exercise their sexual and reproductive rights free from coercion, discrimination and violence.

It is much to be regretted that delegates failed to challenge the decision of the earlier meeting of Amnesty’s International Executive Committee to support the decriminalisation of abortion; access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortion; and legal, safe and accessible abortion, subject to reasonable limitations, in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest and risk to a woman’s life.

The Catholic Church has no desire for women who have been through the trauma of abortion to be punished; they need compassion and healing. Women who suffer complications after an abortion should obviously receive quality care. But our proper indignation regarding pervasive violence against women should not cloud our judgement about our duty to protect the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life.

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, and became a binding treaty for those countries which ratified it. Its Preamble quotes from the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child, that ‘the child, by reason of his or her physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth’. This must surely be part of the body of international human rights law to which Amnesty International is committed.

The Catholic Church shares Amnesty’s strong commitment to oppose violence against women (for example, rape, sexual assault and incest), but such appalling violence must not be answered by violence against the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life in a woman’s womb. Catholics would want to show practical compassion for such women, and ensure for them all the medical and spiritual care and support they need. But there is no human right to access to abortion, and Amnesty should not involve itself even in such extreme cases. Amnesty opposes torture and the death penalty under all circumstances, however dire the situation; the same should be true for Amnesty’s mandate to ‘Protect the Human’ – before as well as after birth. To allow for the use of torture in just one extreme situation (e.g. a terrorist threat) would compromise Amnesty’s absolute rejection of torture. To support access to abortion even in dire situations compromises Amnesty’s mandate to ‘Protect the Human’.

In time Amnesty may seek to develop this policy further, but even this current limited decision makes it very difficult for Catholics to remain members of Amnesty or to give it any financial support. Very regretfully, I will be ending my 31 year membership of Amnesty International, which included in the 1980s several years on the British Section Council and its Religious Bodies Liaison Panel. I remain deeply committed to Amnesty’s original mandate: to work for freedom for prisoners of conscience, an end to torture and the death penalty, and fair trials for all.

Amnesty International has played an enormously important role in the world since its foundation by Peter Benenson, a Catholic, in 1961. It has much important work to do in the future. This regretable decision will almost certainly divide Amnesty’s membership and thereby undermine its vital work. Among all human rights, the right to life is fundamental. Commitment to work to ‘Protect the Human’ can only be deeply compromised by any support for access to abortion.


A Statement of the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

August 23, 2007

After nearly a year of dialogue with leaders of Amnesty International (AI), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly protests the recent action of AI’s International Council to promote worldwide access to abortion. This basic policy change undermines Amnesty’s longstanding moral credibility and unnecessarily diverts its mission. In promoting abortion, Amnesty divides its own members (many of whom are Catholics and others who defend the rights of unborn children) and jeopardizes its support by people in many nations, cultures and religions who share a consistent commitment to all human rights.

Amnesty International’s action will lead many people of conscience to seek alternative means to end grave human rights abuses, fight injustice, and promote freedom of conscience and expression. The essential work of protecting human life and promoting human dignity must

carry on. We must continue to oppose the use of the death penalty and the crushing effects of dehumanizing poverty. We must continue to stand with prisoners of conscience, refugees and migrants, and other oppressed peoples. But we will seek to do so in authentic ways, working most closely with organizations who do not oppose the fundamental right to life from conception to natural death.

To some, the action of Amnesty International may appear to be a compassionate response to women in difficult situations of pregnancy, but this is a false compassion. True commitment to women’s rights puts us in solidarity with women and their unborn children. It does not pit one against the other but calls us to advocate on behalf of both. As our Conference has argued, a far more compassionate response is to provide support and services for pregnant women, advance their educational and economic standing in society, and resist all forms of violence and stigmatization against women. The Catholic Church provides these services to many women around the world and will continue to do so.

We call upon Amnesty International once again to act in accord with its noblest principles, reconsider its error, and reverse its policy on abortion.__________________________________

 US Senators’ letter to Amnesty International

November 2006

Mr. Larry Cox

Executive Director

Amnesty International USA
5 Penn Plaza
New York, NY 10001
fax: (212) 627-1451

Dear Mr. Cox:

As lawmakers, we believe we have a compelling individual and collective duty to protect the weak, disenfranchised, unwanted and vulnerable from violence and abuse.

The principles long held by Amnesty International embody values supported by persons from a broad spectrum of ideological, political and religious beliefs. That’s why we are proud to have made common cause with Amnesty International in promoting key human rights such as the rule of just law, respect for religious liberty, an end to torture, enhanced efforts to combat human trafficking, the protection for freedom of association and of the press, and the release of political prisoners.

Since 1961, you have made a difference for the good in the lives of many and in building a more just society. We write today, however, with great concern and alarm that the mission and reputation of Amnesty International is at risk. We are deeply concerned that Amnesty International may soon embrace a mandate regarding abortion that is antithetical to your—our—shared duty to protect. We respectfully ask that at a minimum you remain neutral on the issue of abortion. Better, of course, would be for you to join us in defending unborn children who we believe deserve better than abortion. The most elemental human right of all—the right to life for all includes unborn babies.

To in any way condone or support abortion which many of your supporters believe is actually a human rights abuse, would significantly undermine Amnesty’s reputation and effectiveness.

The issue of abortion incites strong convictions and any explicit or implied position in favor of abortion will thrust the organization into the heated debate on this topic. As you know, abortion has long divided our country, and current attempts by certain Western groups to introduce abortion as a legal right in the developing world are giving rise to justifiable indignation and resentment by the majority of the populations who live there and value the life of the unborn.

Amnesty International’s vision is one of a “world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.” It is not possible for Amnesty to justify any position that condones abortion based on international human rights law while at the same time objectively adhering to legal instruments and processes. No United Nations human rights treaty or convention recognizes a so-called right to – or even addresses the issue of – abortion.

We believe that the killing of an unborn child by abortion can never be construed to be a human right. Every child—born or unborn—deserves protection and to have his or her human rights secured and protected.

In recent years, modern medicine and scientific breakthroughs have shattered the myth that unborn children are not human persons or alive. Today, as you know, ultrasound technologies and other diagnostic tools have helped doctors to diagnose illness and disability before birth. New and exciting breakthrough health care interventions for the unborn—from intrauterine blood transfusions to microsurgeries—are leading to an ever expanding array of successful treatments and cures of sick or disabled unborn babies in need of help, rather than being subjected to painful administration of deadly chemicals or dismemberment.

Abortion methods either rip, tear and dismember or chemically poison the fragile bodies of unborn children to death. There is nothing whatsoever benign, compassionate or just about an act that utterly destroys the life of a baby. Attempts to justify abortion when a child is “unwanted” turns that baby into an object. No one’s life should be contingent on wantedness. Surely, Amnesty International—more than most—understands and is sensitive to the fact that violence is often given sanction by either demonizing or redefining the victim as a throwaway.

Abortion is both violence against children and the exploitation of women. We strongly believe women deserve better than abortion. Nonviolent, humane solutions need to be found for mothers in crisis or sexual abuse victims. Abortion solves nothing for them—it only adds another victim.

Consider the deleterious effects on women’s psychological and emotional health from abortions. A study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry just this year demonstrated once again the devastating effect of abortion on women. According to researchers, Fergusson, Horwood and Ridder, women who had an “abortion had elevated rates of subsequent mental health problems including depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviours and substance use disorders.”

Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has joined the coalition of women who regret their abortions and are “Silent No More.” They are speaking out against abortion as a the terrible injustice to women as well as children. In her words, “How can the ‘Dream’ survive if we murder the children?” Abortion is truly not a human right, but rather a terrible injustice against the weakest individuals.

With deep respect we ask that you in no way embrace or enable the demise of even one child. Retain your neutrality or join us in defending the most discriminated class of human beings on earth—unborn babies.



US Bishops’ Conference letter to Amnesty International

September 12, 2006

Ms. Irene Khan
Secretary General
International Secretariat
Amnesty International
1 Easton Street
WCIX ODW, United Kingdom

Dear Ms. Khan:

It is with a sense of great alarm that I write to you about the proposal by some within Amnesty International to abandon the organization’s traditional neutral stance on abortion, replacing it with an assertive policy of advocating abortion on demand as a “human right.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops believes a change in policy will erode the human rights of the most vulnerable members of the human family: unborn children. It will also jeopardize Amnesty International’s excellent record as a champion of human rights. To abandon this long held position would be a tragic mistake, dividing human rights advocates and diverting Amnesty International from its central and urgent mission of defending human rights as outlined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

For many years, the Catholic community here in the United States and elsewhere has admired and worked with Amnesty International in its efforts to advance the cause of universal human rights. Greater respect for human rights is one of the hard won achievements of humanity since World War II. Founded by a Catholic layman, Peter Benenson, Amnesty International has been a beacon of hope to thousands of prisoners of conscience, of abuse and torture and a source of inspiration to millions of supporters, including many Catholics who are Amnesty members. Much more urgent work remains, work which we believe will be harmed by this unprecedented and unnecessary involvement in the abortion debate.

We share Amnesty’s vision of a “world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.” Amnesty International and the Catholic Church have both been in the forefront of the struggle to promote the dignity of the human person and basic human rights. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked with Amnesty International over many years on a range of human rights concerns in our own nation, most recently in our common efforts to end the use of the death penalty in the United States. We have also taken up many issues of common concern internationally, ranging from anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa to opposition to the government-sanctioned death squads in Central America to more recent efforts to end the practice of torture by anyone under any circumstances in the struggle against terrorism.

Amnesty International should continue its tradition of focusing on often neglected human rights issues – issues that lack the visibility and advocacy which surround the abortion issue, but are widely acknowledged as legitimate human rights concerns among people of good will. As you know, abortion is not considered a human right in international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on Human Cloning uphold the principle of the dignity of the unborn child and the need for special protection for the unborn in the context of a concern for advancing human rights. It would be ironic for Amnesty International, as an advocate for human rights, to now deny what various international bodies have supported—namely two parties with rights when it comes to birth and abortion.

While the proposed action by Amnesty International may appear to some to support women’s freedom or provide a compassionate response to women who are in difficult situations of pregnancy, abortion injures the health and dignity of women at the same time that it ends the life of the unborn child. In the United States, our experience is that women oppose unrestricted abortion as strongly as men or more. These views are sometimes strongest of all among women who have undergone an abortion.

Violence to correct situations, even unjust ones, diminishes human dignity and the fabric of society. When the Second Vatican Council condemned violations of the dignity of the human person such as mutilation, torture and coercion of conscience, it began its list of human rights abuses with actions “opposed to life itself” such as abortion and euthanasia. The right to life itself is fundamental – it is “the right to have rights,” and its integrity depends on being

acknowledged in absolutely every member of the human family regardless of race, age or condition. This is no peculiarity of Catholic teaching, but an insight of the “natural law” tradition of human rights that has produced so many advances in upholding human dignity. Many of the great figures of our time in advancing human rights and compassion for the destitute – Susan B. Anthony, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fannie Lou Hamer – also spoke out against abortion. Many will find it incomprehensible that these giants of human progress must now be seen as enemies of human rights.

A far more compassionate response is to provide support and services for pregnant women and to advance their educational and economic standing in society. The Catholic Church provides these services to many women around the world and commits itself to continuing to do so. The Catholic Church will also continue to advocate greater attention to these needs in all relevant international assemblies.

If Amnesty International were to advocate for abortion as a human right, it would risk diminishing its own well-deserved moral credibility. It certainly would most likely divide its own members, many of whom are Catholic, and others who defend the rights of unborn children. It could jeopardize Amnesty’s support by people in many nations, cultures and religions. The core
values, commitments and leadership of Amnesty International for the protection of human rights are still greatly needed. We urge you to maintain the focus of Amnesty International’s work on behalf of human rights. Please do not dilute or divert its mission by adopting a position that many see as fundamentally incompatible with a full commitment to human rights and that will deeply divide those working to defend human rights.

Thank you for your attention to our perspective and concerns.

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend William S. Skylstad
Bishop of Spokane

Rick Halperin, Chair, Board of Directors, AIUSA
Larry Cox, Executive Director, AIUSA
Curt Goering, Senior Deputy Executive Director, Policy and Programs, AIUSA
Julie Hertzog, Senior Deputy Executive Director, Operations, AIUSA


Statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference on Amnesty International

1 August 2006

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales value enormously the important role played by Amnesty International in campaigning for the respect and protection of the human rights of every man, woman and child.

In November 1984, the Bishops passed a resolution in support of Amnesty’s efforts to outlaw torture and commended its work of behalf of those unjustly imprisoned and unjustly treated.

In 1983, Cardinal Bernadin Gantin, President of the then Pontifical Commission (now Pontifical Council) for Justice and Peace, in a letter to the presidents of all the world’s Conferences of Bishops, recalled the many ways in which the Pontifical Commission and Amnesty had worked together. He also called on Bishops’ Conferences to explore new ways of cooperating with Amnesty. Partly as a result of this encouragement, some Catholic parishes and groups in England and Wales are affiliated to Amnesty.

At the heart of Amnesty’s work there has always been a particular concern for the most vulnerable. The Catholic Church shares this concern. That is why in many parts of the world the Catholic Church is to be found at the forefront of the struggle for social justice and human rights.

Any comprehensive campaign to ‘Protect the Human’ must include a solid commitment to protect the human rights of the unborn child, among the most defenceless of all humans. Cherishing Life, a document published by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in 2004, states that, ‘Taking the life of a child in the womb is as unjust to the unborn child as taking the life of a new-born baby is to the infant.’

Any comprehensive campaign to ‘Protect the Human’ must include a solid commitment to protect the human rights of the unborn child, among the most defenceless of all humans. Cherishing Life, a document published by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in 2004, states that, ‘Taking the life of a child in the womb is as unjust to the unborn child as taking the life of a new-born baby is to the infant.’

We understand, however, that Amnesty is now proposing to abandon its neutral stance on abortion, at first by moving to advocate a woman’s right to access to abortion in the case of rape, sexual assault, incest and risk to her life, and next by moving to advocate a woman’s right to access to abortion in general. The former may seem to be a compassionate act towards a woman who has suffered violence and a deeply traumatic experience. However, to take the life of the child in her womb, through another act of violence, can never be justified. Furthermore, there is evidence to show that women can suffer severe emotional distress following an abortion.

We do not believe that to support removing the rights of the unborn child is consistent with Amnesty’s core values. Such a policy change would, in the eyes of many, compromise Amnesty as a trusted advocate for human rights. Furthermore, such a decision would almost certainly divide its membership and undermine the vital work for which it was founded and for which it is justly renowned.

Amnesty’s original mandate remains as vital today as it ever was. If this mandate is to be further extended to cover all human rights, we urge Amnesty International to be comprehensive in its campaign to ‘Protect the Human’, to include, therefore, the unborn as among the weakest and most vulnerable, and so remain true to its original vision.


 canadian conf catholic bishops

Statement by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

18 July 2006

According to a public statement by Amnesty International Canada, posted 26 June 2006, Amnesty International will be discussing at meetings this summer and in 2007 whether to include access to abortion services as part of its human rights campaigns (see “Amnesty International Canada’s consultations regarding sexual and reproductive rights – June 2006” at

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops would find it most regrettable if Amnesty International were to adopt a position promoting access to abortion. Such a change in policy would be considered by the Catholic Bishops of Canada to be a step backwards for an organization that has done such outstanding work in defending human life and the rights of the most vulnerable. This change in policy would make it difficult for Catholics to continue supporting the work of Amnesty International.

As clearly and consistently affirmed in the teachings of the Catholic Church, the purposeful destruction of the human embryo is immoral.

A pastoral message issued in November 2005, entitled “To be People of Life and for Life”, by the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, states:

“As Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, no. 78, Christians are called to be ‘people of life and for life….’ This involves choosing life in small ways and large, standing up for life even when it is small and fragile, like the embryo, and supporting couples who struggle …. The Scriptures proclaim that faith and life are integrally related.”


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