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August 26, 2007

Amnesty and Abortion

Yes, I know, there are those who insist that access to abortion is a human right. There are those such as myself who don't agree. Rather than getting bogged down on whether it is or not, just a thought about Amnesty having decided to add the first view to its wish list:

Amnesty International risks alienating some of its high-profile rock star backers in the row over its decision to support women’s access to abortion.

The group has been accused of “duping” the singers Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne, who have both made statements against abortion and are among contributors to an Amnesty CD released to raise money for survivors of the atrocities in Darfur.

Two weeks ago, just two months after the album’s release, Amnesty adopted a worldwide policy to back the right of women to abortion in carefully defined circumstances — for example, when their health or life are in danger or when they have been victims of rape in areas of conflict such as Darfur.

The album, which has already sold more than 400,000 copies, features cover versions of hits by John Lennon such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. It was made possible by Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, who gave the rights to all his solo works to Amnesty in 2003.

The policy on abortion has brought Amnesty into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, and has shown how new divides have displaced the old left-right geopolitics that gave rise to Amnesty. The group was founded in Britain in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a radical socialist lawyer and a Catholic convert, to campaign for the release of prisoners of conscience.

As a private organisation of course Amnesty is entirely at liberty to believe in and campaign for whatever its members want. But I do think they're rather missing a trick here. As a single issue organisation, campaigning for fair trials, against capital punishment and torture, they can speak with an almost unique moral voice: there aren't that many who are going to argue in favour of unfair trials, after all, at least none that we won't immediately label as the baddies.

Keep adding to this list of "rights" to be fought for though and that voice becomes diluted. It's not just that the Catholic Church (which has been a heavy supporter) is now going to withdraw: it's a lot easier for people to ignore your views on killing people at one end of life if you're supporting such killing at the other. No, that doesn't have to make precise logical sense, perceptions are all in such matters.

On the other hand, this is indeed the way that all organisations go in the end. Mission creep happens and what started out as an excellent idea becomes diluted, attempts to incorporate all sorts of other good things (in the views of those inside) and then, eventually, the organisation fails. Happens to companies, governments, don't see why it shouldn't happen to charities.

August 26, 2007 in Feminism | Permalink


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...Keep adding to this list of "rights" to be fought for though and that voice becomes diluted...

That is so - they need to keep out of this one and concentrate on their own issue. However, while I think it's every woman's decision vis a vis her body, the anti-abortion people think they're stopping murder, as you know, so where are we left?

I've had this issue to contend with personally a few times and it never gets easier. You know she'd going to do it and you can't stop her.

Posted by: jameshigham | Aug 26, 2007 9:47:51 AM

Also, Tim, I can't see how this goes under your "Feminism" label - wouldn't perhaps "Women" be more appropriate?

Don't get me wrong - did you see my Feminism tirade?

Posted by: jameshigham | Aug 26, 2007 9:50:27 AM

Actually, back in the days when Amnesty International was a useful and admirable organization it campaigned on one issue only - political prisoners, sometimes called prisoners of conscience. Once it started campaigning against capital punishment in all cases and "human rights" in general, it lost its cache. This latest addition - abortion rights does not alter much, simply adds to the list of reasons why AI, which is an NGO, not precisely a private organization, should no longer be listened to.

Posted by: Helen | Aug 26, 2007 10:34:13 AM

I regard autonomy of one's body as a right; therefore every should be able to control what they do with their own body, e.g. whether they take drugs, whether they allow a parasite (i.e. a fetus) to grow inside it, etc. So in that point of view abortion is a right.

Whether campaigning for abortion rights is politically expedient for AI is not an issue I have any interest in. Suffice it to say that there are many pressure groups, campaigning for all sorts of different things, and all have the right to do so.

"Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne, who have both made statements against abortion"

Well, if they don't like abortion, they don't have to have one, do they? And I would respect their right not to, if that is what they choose. But seek to prevent other people from having an abortion is another matter entirely.

Posted by: Philip Hunt | Aug 26, 2007 10:57:57 AM

The original platform - defending prisoners of conscience - is very like defending free speech. It's a meta issue; regardless of whether a person had been imprisoned for being, say, pro- or anti-abortion, Amnesty would have campaigned for their release. Nobody should be imprisoned for their views, nor should they be prevented from expressing them.

By starting to campaign on specific issues, Amnesty has abandoned this platform, and this is the really horrible part of the story. Now Amnesty has lost its universal moral authority and become just another voice in the shrill debate, nobody is left campaigning dispassionately for the rights of prisoners of conscience.

Once more, a parasitic infection of the left, like the larvae of a hunting wasp, has killed the host it fed off.

Posted by: Peter Risdon | Aug 26, 2007 12:16:58 PM

Well I think, as a Catholic too, that the case their spokesman made the other day on some news problem was compelling. This issue is being driven by the fact that African women in Darfur are being repeatedly raped - often every day - by Janjaweed fighters and that they, Amnesty, see this, and the resulting pregnancies and ostracisation from their communities as a result, as a form of torture. And it sure seems like it to me.

So far as I can gather this is not about suddenly campaigning for a general "right" to abortion. They're not going to be roaming Roman countries demanding a woman's right to choose or anything. This is about protecting and caring for victims off the most appalling sexual torture.

I accept that Rome sees this as relativism. But if the alternative to abortion is some shaman poking about inside of one or providing poisons to try to cause miscarriages, I think I would rather be promoting safe medical abortions.

Anything else on Amnesty's part is kind of like campaigning against torture whilst also abandoning any torture victims to not having medical support and treatment for their resultant injuries.

Posted by: Jock | Aug 26, 2007 12:33:28 PM

"Keep adding to this list of "rights" to be fought for though and that voice becomes diluted. "

Yes indeed. Which is why I am disinheriting Oxfam for its stupid anti-Starbucks campaign.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Aug 26, 2007 5:36:24 PM

I wonder if Amnesty International will campaign for the rights of women in DR Congo who had been raped by UN soldiers and officials to have abortions? More seriously, this is not and should not be their remit any more than the campaign against capital punishment is. Political prisoners or prisoners of conscience are clearly defined - it is not simply nasty things going wrong in different parts of the world.

Posted by: Helen | Aug 26, 2007 9:03:57 PM

Sooner or later abortion will become the 'good of the state' issue.
Keeping all those home grown humans might well be a good idea. Just in case the multiculturals are not quite patriotic should there be a military need
The state bosses people around without much opposition in other areas.

Posted by: john cramer | Aug 27, 2007 6:21:58 AM

The problem is that different people have different and irrecconcilible ideas about what the "fundamental human rights" are.

So if you want your organisation to be universaly supported, you must confine yourself to issues that do have universal support.

Posted by: ad | Aug 27, 2007 1:33:08 PM

Its so sad to see misinformation repeated. The people at Rock for Life, who started the ball rolling with a press release and who appear to be the main source for the Times article, actually list Christina Aguilera as "pro-abortion" because she appeared at a pro-choice rally in Washington DC in 2004. No one has produced the statements she ostensibly made in favor of criminalizing abortion (no, saying you are personally against it doesn't make you "pro-life" in a policy context).

Amnesty does a terrific job of explaining what their abortion policy is and how it integrates with the rest of their platform. People should take the time to review their material before making pronouncements.

Posted by: Ciccina | Aug 27, 2007 10:12:48 PM