Amnesty International, the Catholic Church, and Some Profound Questions of Life and Death

By Lawson, Dominic | The Independent (London, England), August 31, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Amnesty International, the Catholic Church, and Some Profound Questions of Life and Death


Lawson, Dominic, The Independent (London, England)


A newspaper never knows exactly which stories will galvanise its own readers into print. Generally, however, moral conflicts excite much more interest than political ones. Thus The Independent's letters page has been pullulating with opinions following its coverage of the row between the Catholic Church and Amnesty International over the latter's decision to campaign for abortion rights.

Yesterday's edition contained two which repay greater examination. The first was from Neville White, the chairman of the Bromley and Orpington Amnesty Group, who wrote: "At least three local groups in this area have been affected by the decision either through resignation or by putting under severe strain a relationship they have with their founding church. Consultation with members has been at best cursory and without apparent understanding of how divisive the consequences may be; for a movement founded on 'conscience' this is extraordinary."

Mr White's reference to a "founding church" is slightly perplexing - until you recall that the founder of Amnesty International was a Catholic convert, Peter Benenson. However, Mr Thomas Wiggins, of Wokingham, insisted that it is "completely wrong" to accuse Amnesty of "betraying the vision of its founders by supporting abortion". Mr Wiggins argued that "Amnesty was not set up to protect the rights of the unborn, but to prevent human rights abuses."

Well, as the philosopher said, it all depends on what you mean by human. I think the unborn child is human, equipped with everything he or she requires for independent life, save maturity. Others, perhaps including Mr Wiggins, have a different opinion; but he is simply wrong to think that the concept of rights for the unborn is irrelevant to Amnesty's mission.

The organisation has always set great store by international treaties on human rights - and rightly so, since they can be used to shame nations into honouring what they had signed. In 1959, two years before the founding of Amnesty, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child declaimed: "The child, by reason of his or her physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, both before as well as after birth." In 1989, this was recast as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and signed at the UN General Assembly.

When I called Michael Blakemore, the media director of Amnesty in the UK, he disputed Mr White's accusation that the organisation had not properly consulted its members, and said that the great majority were in sympathy with its decision to campaign for access to abortion. In any event, Amnesty's executive board certainly understood how divisive its decision would be - which makes the whole business even more surprising.

The support of the Catholic Church for Amnesty International has not just been a financial boon, via collections across the globe. The link has also been politically invaluable, as in many countries with repressive regimes the Catholic Church has provided both a haven for dissidents and a social power for rulers to reckon with.

--asked Mr Blakemore if Amnesty had ever before endured such deep divisions over a campaign. He said he couldn't recall anything like it, but that the nearest was when the organisation decided to campaign against the death penalty, including in the United States. There is deep irony here, if you are of a mind to appreciate it: the Catholic Church put its full weight behind Amnesty's campaign against what it sees as legalised murder - and it is for precisely the same reason that it is now so dismayed at the organisation's imminent abortion rights campaign.

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