Amnestys stated position is to support limited access to abortion, with reasonable gestational limits, when [the womans] health or human rights are in danger. This change, they explain, stems from the organizations long experience of the violence done to women throughout the world. In many countries the physical and sexual assault of women is a fact of everyday life: rape is used as a means of attacking an opposing tribe or militia, or of establishing ones domain; and pregnancy, even in the case of rape, can be cause for social ostracism. In parts of Nigeria women who have an abortion are subject to punishment by imprisonment or even death.
Amnestys position thus emerges from its informed understanding of the plight of women in the violent, dangerous terrain of much of the developing world. Kate Gilmore, the executive deputy secretary general of the organization, says, Amnesty Internationals position is not for abortion as a right but for womens human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations.
For both its human rights work in general and its forthright desire to bring to light and to an end the violence toward women, Amnesty merits the worlds gratitude and praise. Countries and peoples who allow such violence to occur should be denounced. Yet Amnestys position on abortion remains deeply troubling. Terms like the right to privacy, unwanted pregnancy and reproductive rights, all of which the organization has used in discussing its position, suggest an alignment with exactly those dubious justifications for abortion that the church rightly opposes. Amnesty may see itself as taking its position strictly to defend against human rights violations; yet the danger of being co-opted by an entirely different agendaand a different definition of human rightslooms large. Indeed, Amnesty USAs recent opposition to the Supreme Court ban on partial-birth abortions, on the grounds that it imposes criminal sanctions for doctors who provide these late-term abortions, shows the group already far afield from its human rights mission.
Amnestys stand on abortion also embraces exactly the sort of utilitarian calculus used by those that it condemns. Amnesty should resist such calculations and continue to grapple instead with the tensions of the all too murky world in which it works.
Catholics, for their part, must continue to open their eyes to the suffering and injustice that Amnesty discloses, and work alongside Amnesty toward a world in which human rights are ensured and all forms of violence against women and children, including abortion, can be prevented. Members of the church who demand that Catholics boycott the organization should bear in mind that the church has long been capable of maintaining relationships with those with whom it disagrees, even on important issues. The Vatican rightly continues to reach out to China, for example, despite its human rights violations and its policy of forced abortions.
Catholic Church leaders are to be lauded for their willingness to challenge disturbing mores of society and to call all people and organizations, including Amnesty International, to be guided by the highest human values. Yet it is important for us to remember that while isolation may sometimes be an unhappy side effect of our Christian prophetic activity, it is not a prerequisite for it. The call by some to boycott Amnesty amounts to a sort of nuclear option that ignores the tremendous good that the organization does and the complicated, morally turgid world in which we live. To the extent that we refuse to acknowledge the complexities of this world and to grapple with them alongside Amnesty and others with whom we sometimes disagree, we serve only to diminish our own credibility.
Both the church and Amnesty International are fueled by concern for the lives of all human beings and passion against those who would betray those lives. Church officials would be wise to see Amnesty in this light, and Amnesty would do well to hear Catholic criticisms for what they areexpressions of profound concern by a longtime, like-minded friend.