My friend Richard Stith, professor of law at Valparaiso University, first drew my attention to the issue on the Mirror of Justice blog about a year ago. Richard, a member of Amnesty International (AI) and Consistent Life, led me to the Consistent Life website and Rachel MacNair's tracking of Amnesty International's new policy on "Sexual and Reproductive Rights."
Whereas AI used to take no position one way or the other on a woman's right to abortion or an unborn child's right to lifethough they were always against forced abortionthey now have broadened their understanding of sexual and reproductive rights to include a "right" to abortion, although they'll strenuously deny it.
The thing is, they don't want to have to deny it, because they don't want you to find out about it; at least not yet. I recently visited the Amnesty International USA website and did some digging around. On the homepage accessible to the general public, I found nothing about the changes to their abortion advocacy. So I logged in to the members-only, restricted-content page. After a little searching, I found what I was looking for.
Karen Schneider, the chair of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Working Group, posted a letter, "Updated April 20th, 2007," and addressed to volunteer leaders. Before I reveal the beginning, here's a bit of the ending:
It is very important to be aware of the following: This policy will not be made public at this time. As the IEC [Amnesty International's International Executive Committee] has written to all sections, "There is to be no proactive external publication of the policy position or of the fact of its adoption issued. This means no section or structure is to issue a press release or public statement or external communication of any kind on the policy decision." (emphasis original)
Anticipating that news might get out anyway, the website contains links to four other documentsa two-page overview of the new policy, a letter from the executive director explaining the change, and an already-written letter to the editor "that should be used only to respond to critical editorials or letters to the editor in local newspapers." Members were encouraged to circulate these documents to the public but only in response to prior attacks on Amnesty's new policythey'd prefer not to generate any PR if possible, and do damage-control only if they have to. All the documents had the same tone a student takes who after being sent to the principal's office is then forced to talk with the secretary while awaiting his appointmentdefensive rationalizing at the service of cleansing the conscience.
The fourth document, a FAQ, could only "be used to respond to inquiries, but not distributed to the public." Schneider ends by telling volunteers that they were not to "respond to any inquiries from the news media" but to direct reporters to the AI Communication Department.
Why the preemptive cover-up? Why the anticipatory responses? A letter to the editor already drafted in response to negative stories that haven't even been written? An answer sheet to frequently asked questions before the new policy has even been announced and enough questions could be asked to generate frequency? Something's up.
So, how did that letter begin? Schneider started with this: "Amnesty International's International Executive Committee (IEC) has adopted a new position on Sexual and Reproductive Rights that includes support for abortion in very particular circumstances, in the context of our work to stop grave human rights abuses against women and girls."
The new policy has three basic goals: (1) provide access to abortion in what they claim will only be "particular circumstances," (2) ensure that women have access to medical care after botchedwhether legal or illegalabortions, and (3) eliminate all penalties against women seeking abortions and against abortion providers.
The various supporting documents all stress the legitimate concerns of female health and liberty and the good work Amnesty International has done in the past on these issuesbut then argue for what will amount to an unlimited right to abortion.
Of course, AI adamantly denies this. Consider the fourth frequently asked question: "Does AI promote 'abortion as human right'?" Their response: "No. 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, no media reports, until now, have claimed thisAI just anticipated, correctly, that some would.)
The phrase: "AI takes no position on whether abortion is right or wrong, nor on whether or not abortion should be legal" is repeated over and over throughout the AI documents. But it's not true.
Though they try to make a strong distinction between "decriminalization" (what they're for) and "legalization" (what they take no position on), it's mere semantics. In the April 2007 "Background" policy paper, they describe their goal this way: "Oppose imprisonment and other criminal penalties for abortion, both for women seeking or having abortions and for those providing information about or performing abortions."
Then, in the FAQ, they specify: "'Decriminalization' means the removal of all criminal penalties (including imprisonment, fines, and other punishments) against those seeking, obtaining, providing information about, or carrying out abortions." In other words, besides standard medical protocols, you can not regulate abortion at all. Some medical protocols that carry fines and other punishments are apparently out, too.
The "Background" paper also states that their new policy is to "call on states 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."
Wait a minute. We've just gone from "decriminalizing" abortion to calling on states to "ensure access." And, when you throw in the language of a risk to life and health, even if you include the obligatory word "grave," all of a sudden every abortion becomes "ensured." If you doubt this, just look at the way Roe's health exception and Doe's broad definition of the word have been used.
In fact, read further on in the FAQ and you see that Amnesty International disagrees with the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion. "AI therefore opposes the provision of the federal law upheld by the Court in Carhart that imposes fines and up to two years in prison for doctors who perform particular types of abortions." According to the new Amnesty International position on abortion rights, a state can't even prohibit the gruesome practice of partial-birth abortion.
The new policy is just sad. I feel for my friend Richard and all those like him who are members of Amnesty International and support so much of the work AI has done over the years to promote and protect human rights across the globe. From advocating for political prisoners, to protesting all forms of torture; from demanding fair trials, to shining the global spotlight on renegade governments' acts of terror on their own people; from campaigning for an end to capital punishment, to working to stop violence against womenAmnesty International has been the champion of the universality of human rights. But what would Peter Benenson, the English lawyer and Catholic convert who founded AI, think about this latest move?
The current leadership thinks it follows with syllogistic rigor:
This policy follows Amnesty International's long-standing human rights work on issues related to reproductive and sexual health, particularly in the context of our work to stop violence against women. Over many years, for example, we have opposed coerced abortion, sterilization and abortion for sex selection, demanded the prosecution of rape committed as a weapon of war and called for an end to female genital mutilation.
But couldn't they see that abortion isn't the solution to women's problems but just one more problem to add to the list of evils to oppose? (At one point they say their new abortion policy will help the situation in Darfur; I fear it will simply add one more form of violence.) Has the message of Feminists for Life that "Women Deserve Better than Abortion" fallen on deaf ears? Have the stories told by the brave women of Silent No More and Rachel's Vineyard gone ignored? Has the witness provided by the Sisters of Lifeand the mothers they servebeen to no effect? Nothing I read on the AI site showed any indication of having wrestled with the possibility that abortion isn't the answer women need but might actually be part of the problem.
Nor did I see anything about whether abortion was itself a violation of basic human rights. In fact, AI expressly ignores that question: "AI takes no position as to when life begins." But how can a human-rights organization take no position on who is a human being? The question isn't about speculative theology or mysticism; it's readily apparent to anyone with high school knowledge of embryology and developmental biology. And for a human-rights organization simply to "take no position" undermines its entire mission. As First Things contributor Hadley Arkes argued so well in his Natural Rights and the Right to Choose, one embracing this logic is left in a most curious position: "He cannot vindicate then his own rights, and for the same reason, he is not in a position any longer to vindicate the rights of anyone else."
Regardless of whether Hadley is right as a point of logic, he is certainly right as a point of fact. Amnesty International's new abortion policy will strainif not completely severthe close ties it enjoys with many of the staunchest defenders of human rights: religious believers, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church. Though they hope to preempt such a conclusionand gave their members just such a set of talking pointsthey are only kidding themselves:
Some religious believers consider abortion a violation of the right to life. International law is silent on the question of when life begins and Amnesty International takes no position on this question. The organization recognizes and respects the diversity of religious viewpoints on abortion and believes that one of its greatest strengths has been the solidarity forged among people of diverse beliefs who nonetheless share a commitment to ending human suffering. In this spirit, the organization's leadership believes that its members and supporters can continue to collaborate on specific human rights issues without having to change or challenge their moral standpoint or views on issues such as abortion.
Amnesty International, of course, ultimately does take a position on the question of when life begins: Life does not beginat least not in a way that merits the advocacy of Amnesty Internationaluntil after birth. The organization's leadership deludes itself if it thinks its new support for an unlimited abortion license doesn't undermine the solidarity once enjoyed among all those working to end human suffering. And that's reason for all champions of human rights to be saddened by the "news" coming from Amnesty International today.
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things. He is also the assistant director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.