The real Amnesty-abortion scandal

Forget the Catholic Church’s predictable stance on abortion. Why is a human rights group so cavalier about a woman’s right to choose?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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What is more shocking? The fact that the Catholic Church, well known for its obsessive opposition to abortion and contraception, should threaten to cut its links with organisations that support a woman’s right to choose? Or the fact that Amnesty International, a Western, liberal, progressive outfit whose slogan is ‘Protect the Human’, remained, until recently, neutral on the question of abortion, and now only supports a woman’s right to choose if she has been raped or made pregnant as a result of incest?

Yes, Amnesty’s stance is far more disturbing. We all know where the Catholic Church stands on reproductive matters. It is an obscurantist institution, which argues that rape victims who become pregnant should consider their babies ‘a blessing’ from God, and tells 13-year-old boys not to masturbate because a spilled sperm is a wasted sperm (that’s like telling 13-year-old boys not to breathe).

Amnesty, however, professes to be a modern rights organisation. It was founded to support prisoners of conscience around the world, and more recently it has chastised governments that abuse human rights and become a leading critic of America’s prisoner-of-war camp at Guantanamo Bay. Yet on a woman’s right to choose – a basic, fundamental right that allows women to be autonomous and to take part in society on an equal footing with men – Amnesty says it does not support ‘abortion as a right’ (1).

The Catholic Church’s position is predictably pious and authoritarian. Amnesty’s position, its support for abortion only in extremely limited circumstances, is craven. And given the organisation’s clout in international debate, it could potentially deliver a far graver bodyblow to people in the developing world who want equality than anything the men-in-frocks might say or do. Yet in the big Amnesty-abortion debate of the past week, the Catholic Church has been chastised for threatening to dissociate itself from Amnesty, while Amnesty has been awarded a ‘mountain of admiration’ (2) for effectively saying: ‘Okay, maybe women who have been sexually assaulted should have access to abortion….’

This gets the debate completely the wrong way round – and it captures the disturbingly low horizons many in the West have for people ‘over there’.

Amnesty was traditionally neutral on abortion. This was partly because it has close links with the Catholic Church and carries out much of its work in Catholic countries, and it did not want to upset the bishops by mentioning the A-word. And it was partly because Amnesty describes itself as a ‘human rights organisation’, and ‘there is no generally accepted right to abortion in international human rights law’ (3). This meant that Amnesty could largely ignore the question of abortion, despite the fact that women in the developing world need legal abortion services every bit as much as women in the West do. In countries where abortion is legal, the maternal mortality rate is 0.2 per 100,000 – in countries where abortion is illegal, the rate is 330 per 100,000. There are an estimated 20million abortions around the world every year, and according to the World Health Organisation many of them are ‘carried out by unskilled staff in unsafe conditions’ (4). Yet in order to keep sweet with the Catholics, and in the name of sticking to the letter of international human rights legislation, Amnesty trotted the globe for years criticising prison conditions and rights violations without uttering a word of public support for a woman’s right to choose.

Now, Amnesty has ditched its neutrality on abortion. Last month it announced that it will start campaigning for women to have access to abortion in strictly limited situations: that is, if their pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or if the pregnancy jeopardises the woman’s life. This has caused a clash of comments between Amnesty and the Catholic Church. The Vatican called on Catholic groups and individuals to stop giving money to Amnesty. ‘The inevitable consequence [of Amnesty’s decision] will be the end of all financing from Catholic organisations’, said Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, resigned from Amnesty in protest at its new position. This week, the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland called on all Catholic schools to disband their Amnesty student groups; so far, one grammar school in Belfast has followed this advice (5).

Over the past two weeks, commentators and human rights activists have taken fire at the Catholic Church over its response to Amnesty’s new policy on abortion. One columnist said she had a ‘mountain of admiration’ for Amnesty and accused the Church of supporting the ‘holocaust of teenage girls’ who die from botched backstreet abortions every year (6). A feminist writer congratulated Amnesty for taking a ‘brave and principled decision’ in the face of ‘an outpouring of condemnation from religious bodies’ (7). On one level, these criticisms of the Church are understandable: it is a disgrace for leading Catholics effectively to use financial blackmail against organisations that do things they disagree with. Yet the backslapping of ‘brave’ Amnesty misses the real story here, which is that Amnesty’s new stance on abortion is actually not that much better than the Church’s, and indeed it exposes some very big problems with Western human rights activism in the developing world.

Both its traditional neutrality on abortion and its recently announced support for post-rape abortion highlight the limitations to Amnesty’s style of do-gooding in the developing world. The main reason why Amnesty was neutral on abortion for so long is because a woman’s right to choose is not enshrined in United Nations human rights legislation. In short, if it was not a ‘human right’, as defined in a dry document drawn up by a supranational body, then Amnesty wasn’t really interested.

This captures a striking divide between abstract human rights constructed by governments around a table, and real, urgent, lived rights in our everyday lives. The postwar human rights agenda has warped our traditional understanding of rights and liberty. Once, liberty meant being free from state interference, having the right to choose and speak and assemble without a tyrannical government breathing down our necks. Human rights, in a complete flip-reversal, encourage state interference in our lives: they call on governments to provide people with certain very basic ‘rights’, and to ensure that we also live up to our ‘responsibilities’. Consider the way that the American Constitution laid down what governments should not do (restrict free speech, pass laws limiting gun ownership, etc), while human rights legislation lays down, in great detail, what governments should do (provide protection, security, food and so on).

In many ways, a woman’s right to choose – a real, meaningful right which, if enjoyed, can have an immensely positive impact on a woman’s life and status – is the very opposite of a human right. Where human rights are written from on high and passed down like a list of instructions to national governments, the right to choose is about a woman having control over her own body and personhood. It gives her power over her destiny and increases the choices she can make about work, family life and social life. Where human rights emphasise governments’ responsibilities to protect people from harm, the right to choose frees a woman from official prying into the decisions she makes about her body and her life; it increases her humanity, it makes her a fuller, more independent human being. The human rights agenda gives rise to Western advocacy on behalf of at-risk individuals, as groups like Amnesty and officials at the UN adopt victimised individuals in the developing world and campaign for their human rights to be reinstated; by contrast, real rights emphasise a person’s ability to be a self-advocate, if you like, to make decisions and take actions according to his or her own interests and desires.

In short, where human rights infantilise us, treating us as beings with very basic needs who need our governments, the UN and groups like Amnesty to guard us from others, real rights such as the right to choose, as well as the right to vote and the rights to free speech and free assembly, allow us to live as autonomous adults. Amnesty’s neutrality on abortion was about more than keeping on side with Catholics. It also reflected the human rights lobby’s lack of interest in, possibly even innate hostility towards, traditional rights. After all, a developing world in which people were demanding the right to choose and organise and speak as they saw fit would not need powerful human rights organisations to come and fight its corner. Everything you need to know about today’s problematic human rights agenda is contained in the idea that, according to the Amnesty worldview, it is acceptable for countries to adopt human rights without granting women the right to choose. That is, there can be a ‘human rights culture’ even if there is no free and safe access to abortion; a woman can be said to enjoy human rights even if she does not have basic control over her own reproductive system. Such is the narrow focus of the human rights agenda that you can ‘have human rights’ and yet still be enslaved.

Now, Amnesty’s new support for limited forms of abortion reveals much about how Western activists view the Third World: as a hotbed of war, rape and incest, where too many people are being born. Amnesty has not suddenly decided that a woman’s right to choose is something worth fighting for. Instead, it says it has altered its policy on abortion in response to what is happening in the warzones of the Congo and Darfur. An Amnesty spokesperson said the organisation is still not campaigning for ‘abortion as a right’; rather it was so shocked by the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Congo and Darfur that it now believes raped women should be allowed to abort. One supportive reporter summed up Amnesty’s policy as follows: ‘To allow the victims of mass rape to give birth is arguably tantamount to complicity in genocide. Because the most horrible conclusion of rape as a weapon of war is that it can change the ethnic make-up of a country. In the case of Darfur, it could mean the steady Arabisation of the next generation.’ (8)

In other words, Amnesty supports abortion as a means of keeping in check African barbarism rather than as a right that African women should enjoy in the name of liberty and equality. This is not about calling for the right to choose as a common good, a right that might help elevate women’s status; rather it is about allowing abortion in certain circumstances as a corrective to rape and destruction. When supporters of Amnesty say that abortion is a necessity to prevent, for example, ‘Arabisation’ in Darfur, they are effectively calling for a eugenic form of abortion: the use of abortion to control violent ‘cross-breeding’ and to keep down the numbers of the ‘wrong’ sorts of people.

Here, Amnesty’s policy shift fits in with much Western campaigning in the developing world today. Even those organisations that do support people’s right to use contraception or access abortion tend to argue that the Third World needs these things because it is so terribly overpopulated. Their central argument against the Catholic Church is that, in demonising condoms and abortion, it is giving the green light to rising birth rates in Africa. And according to one commentator on African affairs, it is ‘sheer irresponsibility to reject population control on a continent stalked by famine and stunted by malnutrition, where each year brings another 10million mouths to feed’ (9). The Catholic Church may spread backward ideas in Africa and elsewhere, but at least it does not subscribe to the poisonous idea that there are ‘too many black babies’ being born. Such is the miserabilism and misanthropy of today’s human rights and population-control lobbies that the Catholic Church looks almost progressive in comparison.

The recent attacks on the Catholic Church miss the point. The really shocking story behind the Amnesty-abortion debate is the way in which human rights groups seem to care little for extending real rights to women in the Third World, and seem to view abortion as a corrective to Africans’ rapacious behaviour and continual breeding. Such policies are about as far away from increasing women’s independence as you can possibly get. Instead they reduce women to the pathetic victims of wicked men who need Westerners to help them remove their ethnically-warped fetuses. Anyone who supports real development, equality and choice at home and overseas would do well to challenge human rights groups and development NGOs as much as the Catholic Church.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow said that, today, the abortion debate is far from a discussion about equal rights and women’s independence. Stuart Derbyshire explained that the USA’s ban on ‘partial-birth abortion’ rests on flawed arguments about fetal development. Ann Furedi explained why she and her colleagues were not scared by the UK LifeLeague’s ‘name and shame’ antics and said that, when it comes to abortion, some messages can’t be massaged. Ellie Lee argued that it’s better to be able to have abortions ‘late’ than never. Or read more at spiked issue Abortion.

(1) Amnesty faces Catholic church boycott over abortion policy, Guardian, 10 August 2007

(2) Faith schools should not be tax-funded, and here’s why, Guardian, 19 September 2007

(3) Amnesty could kill itself, Spectator

(4) Faith schools should not be tax-funded, and here’s why, Guardian, 19 September 2007

(5) Faith schools should not be tax-funded, and here’s why, Guardian, 19 September 2007

(6) Faith schools should not be tax-funded, and here’s why, Guardian, 19 September 2007

(7) Valuing women’s lives, Comment Is Free, 21 August 2007

(8) Rape in Darfur persuaded charity to act, Independent, 13 August 2007

(9) See Did the Pope spread AIDS in Africa?, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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