This May, First Things broke the news of Amnesty International’s change of policy from neutrality to pro-abortion advocacy. Subsequently, both the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican issued statements urging Amnesty International to reconsider its new policy. (I reported on some of these developments in a recent article in the Weekly Standard .)
Now Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International, USA, has sent a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops , criticizing the bishops’ response to the new abortion policy. Cox’s spin is that Amnesty International isn’t promoting a right to abortion but merely opposing criminal sanctions against women who have abortions and doctors who perform them.
But what does this really mean? Historically, abortion laws have not punished women but imposed sanctions on the abortionist¯the individual who kills a child in the womb. Now, according to Amnesty International, it is a violation of human rights to punish abortionists. Even after stating this new policy, Cox has the audacity to claim to "take no position as to whether abortion is right or wrong, nor on its legalization generally."
Cox’s assertion that Amnesty International has no position on whether abortion is right or wrong is ridiculous. If pre-natal homicide is wrong, then why can’t governments legislate against it? As Lincoln taught us, no one can consistently claim to have a right to do wrong. And, if abortion is wrong, it’s precisely because it’s the unjust killing of an innocent human being. If that’s the case, don’t governments have an obligation to prohibit it, and to make the prohibition meaningful by attaching sanctions against those who violate it? Does anyone doubt that Amnesty International does have a clear position on the legality of abortion? What option is left¯to make laws against abortion without enforcing them?
Perhaps this is why Amnesty International explicitly opposes the United States’ ban on partial-birth abortion. Cox himself wrote that Amnesty International "opposes the specific provisions of the federal law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart that criminalize doctors who perform particular types of abortions." In other words, according to Amnesty International, when the government of the United States attempts to protect partially born Americans from death at the hands of abortionists, it is violating human rights.
This, of course, highlights the true incoherence of Amnesty International’s abortion policy. Why does the group defend the right of abortionists to kill human beings up to the point of birth but provide no protection to the unborn child? Why is Amnesty International protecting the partial-birth-abortion "doctor" while offering the partially born child absolutely nothing? Is this what it means to be a human-rights organization?
Amnesty International frequently claims to take "no position as to when life begins." But what reason can they give for taking no position on a question settled long ago by science? Does Amnesty International deny that the entity being "aborted" in partial-birth abortion is a human being? Are those feet the abortionist is holding when he jams a pair of scissors into the base of child’s skull anything other than human feet? Is the blood that streams out something other than human blood? That a child in the womb is a living human being is a matter of scientific fact. Does Amnesty International deny it?
So, if Amnesty International chooses to address the abortion issue at all, on what grounds does it deny human rights¯and the most fundamental of all human rights, the right to life¯to unborn human beings? Such a position undermines the entire foundation of human rights. For basic rights are founded on the conviction that all human beings¯regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, intelligence, age, size, location, or dependency¯are the subjects of profound, inherent, and equal dignity simply by virtue of their humanity. If this dignity does not depend on particular characteristics that vary from one human being to another and across each lifetime, then every human being must possess such dignity¯and, thus, the rights it entails¯from the point at which he or she comes into being. Does Amnesty International deny this?
If Amnesty International believes its support of abortion follows from the logic of human rights, then it should have no problem answering such questions.
Ryan T. Anderson is an assistant editor at First Things . A 2007 Phillips Foundation Fellow and a Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute , he is the assistant director of the Program in Bioethics at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, N.J.