Special Report

Amnesty International Adieu

The long-time human rights defender now defends a fundamental human wrong.

By 8.30.07

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"MATCHING GIFT CAMPAIGN DEADLINE: AUGUST 31, 2007," headlined the direct mail letter from Amnesty International. Executive Director Larry Cox said, "I can't stress strongly enough how important it is for Amnesty International to maximize our resources at this critical moment."

I've given to AI before. Not to support domestic civil liberties, which Cox emphasized, since there are plenty of domestic groups to fight that battle. But to promote international human rights. Even during the Cold War Amnesty criticized communist regimes as well as authoritarian right-wing dictatorships.

One of AI's current targets is China. Amnesty recently issued a report entitled "The Olympics countdown -- one year left to fulfil human rights promises." The document provides an unsparing look at Beijing's violations of basic human rights.

But I won't be giving anymore. AI's international council recently backed the executive board's earlier decision to effectively treat abortion as a basic human right, with nary a nod to the rights of the human being whose life is snuffed out.

Amnesty has gone a bit nutty on policy before. Some time ago the organization adopted the death penalty as an issue, thereby putting capital punishment alongside extra-judicial murder as a violation of the right to life. No doubt, many bad regimes abuse their power by executing political opponents. And there are plenty of policy arguments to use against reliance on the death penalty even in America. But it is bizarre to contend that executing a murderer violates his human rights. One can equally argue that not imposing the supreme penalty, at least in the most heinous circumstances, violates the rights of the victim.

Still, AI's opposition to capital punishment was only an irritant to me. I'm conflicted on the issue and it's not a deal-breaker.

Now Amnesty is pushing for abortion. The organization has created an odd disjunction: life is so precious that even a murderer must be saved, but an unborn child is so unimportant that he may be killed. AI never satisfactorily explains the inconsistency, claiming that both the death penalty and "unsafe and illegal abortion" raise "issues of the right to life and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment." But Amnesty never mentions the person being killed in either case. A murderer has a right to life. A baby does not.

PERHAPS EMBARRASSED AT ITS SOPHISTRY, AI has attempted to downplay its pro-abortion position. The organization issued a press release at the time blandly explaining that AI backed "the rights of women and girls to be free from threat, force, or coercion as they exercise their sexual and reproductive rights."

What right-thinking person could support coercing someone as "they exercise their sexual and reproductive rights"? But everything depends on the definition of sexual and reproductive rights.

No one believes that women should be subject to rape or forced to have sex in any fashion. No one believes that women should be forced to terminate the child or children they are carrying, as once was the case in China. No one believes that women should be threatened if they don't accept sterilization, as once was the case for men in India.

No one would disagree with Amnesty when it "demanded the prosecution of rape committed as a weapon or war and called for an end to female genital mutilation." Few would disagree with AI when it opposed abortion for the purpose of sex selection, which usually means killing female babies.

But in April the nine-member executive board decided that "Sexual and Reproductive Rights" would include "support for abortion." As Ryan T. Anderson, a junior fellow at First Things and assistant director at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, discovered when he moved beyond the public website to the members-only section, the new policy expressed support for abortion access "in what they claim will only be 'particular circumstances'" and for eliminating "all penalties against women seeking abortions and against abortion providers."

AI insisted that it was taking "no position on whether abortion is right or wrong, nor on whether or not abortion should be legal." But that was manifestly untrue. Amnesty formally focused its attention on the traditional exceptions of rape, sexual assault, incest, threat to mother's life or "grave risk to her health." But the health exception has come to swallow the whole. As Anderson pointed out, "If you doubt this, just look at the way Roe's health exception and Doe's broad definition of the word have been used.

Moreover, because of the penalties enacted, AI opposed the federal ban on partial birth abortions, where a live baby is killed in a particularly gruesome fashion. The organization dismissed the right of health care professionals to avoid participating in abortions for reasons of conscience, lest they interfere with the right of those requesting abortions. Finally, Amnesty did not limit the cases in which it sought "the removal of all criminal penalties (including imprisonment, fines, and other punishments) against those seeking, obtaining, providing information about, or carrying out abortions." These penalties, contended AI, are "a violation of women's reproductive rights."

The result is full-scale, across-the-board legalization. At most, "states may properly ensure that medical practitioners are licensed, may provide other protection against malpractice, and may set reasonable gestational limits," said Amnesty. Ironically, by insisting that no one can be punished for violating even a supposedly valid law, AI obviated its formal opposition to sex-selective abortions.

ORGANIZATION OFFICIALS RECOGNIZED that the policy would be controversial, so they even sought to keep the membership quiet. Anderson pointed to the letter from Karen Schneider, chair of the Sexual and Reproductive Rights Working Group, which explained that "It is very important to be aware of the following: This policy will not be made public at this time. As the [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."

Materials were prepared in case the news slipped out, and critical articles or letters appeared. Volunteers were told to send questioners to AI communications personnel. The organization prevented critics from passing out leaflets at its national conference. "There's simply no reason for us to publicize policy issues," Widney Brown, of Amnesty's International Secretariat, later told Reuters.

Even after AI's policy switch became public, its staff attempted to obfuscate the issue. In June Kate Gilmore, Executive Deputy Secretary General, stated that "Amnesty International's position is not for abortion as a right but for women's human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations." But, in fact, the organization called for ending penalties in all circumstances.

Some pro-life Amnesty supporters hoped that the 400-member International Council would overturn the abortion policy when the group met in Mexico City in mid-August. But it was not to be. AI officially announced that the Council "affirmed the organization's policy" on abortion.

OBVIOUSLY, THE ISSUE OF ABORTION is difficult and controversial. But a group that purports to be concerned with human rights cannot evade the issue of the unborn by claiming to take no position on when life begins. By effectively supporting the right to abortion up to the moment of birth, AI has decided that the unborn -- the most vulnerable and the most helpless in our society -- do not count morally in any way at any point.

Moreover, the organization makes much of its efforts "to stop violence against women." Indeed, without apparent irony, in justifying its position to religious believers AI "calls on its members and supporters to work with the organization to end violence against women, which often lies at the root of many unwanted pregnancies." Yet is there a greater act of violence than abortion itself? And when the baby is female, is not the violence directed against women?

By becoming an advocate of abortion, AI has done more than abandon the unborn who so need an outside advocate. Amnesty also has damaged its own credibility, undercutting its larger mission to aid prisoners of conscience and other victims of state violence and oppression around the globe. As Ryan Anderson notes, "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."

AI has sacrificed its reputation as a nonpartisan human rights group. It also has made it difficult for some of its most obvious allies -- religious activists committed to the life and dignity of all human beings -- to back AI's work.

Ironically, Amnesty was created by a Catholic layman, Peter Benenson. But the organization now has made it particularly difficult for Catholics to support AI's work. The Vatican has urged Catholics to stop providing financial support to Amnesty, and several leading Catholics have resigned as members from the organization. Losses are likely to extend to evangelicals and perhaps beyond.

I'm sorry, Mr. Cox, but I can't send Amnesty International money any longer. I admire your organization and its work. But I believe there is no more fundamental human right than the right to life. And no one more needs protection from violence than the unborn. It's unfortunate that an otherwise worthy group like AI is unwilling to defend human life in all of its forms.

Doug Bandow is vice president for policy at Citizen Outreach. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon Press).

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).