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Monday, March 17, 2008

Amnesty International's Big Mistake: An Interview with Andrew Eager of Roll Back Amnesty

Except for an uncontroversial stance against forced procedures, the global human rights giant Amnesty International (AI) remained officially neutral on abortion until 2007. Last year, it officially defined (presumed-voluntary) abortion as a human right in certain specified circumstances. Both prolife and prochoice members have protested this highly divisive move-and still protest it.

Roll Back Amnesty (RBA) is an international forum for current and resigned members who hold diverse views on abortion itself, but agree that AI should return to an abortion-neutral policy. Here Andrew Eager discusses the work and purpose of RBA, as well as his own individual reasons for objecting to Amnesty's new policy.

MARYSIA: So please tell us about yourself.

ANDREW: I own/run a small IT Services company in South County Dublin,Ireland. I'm 32 years of age. With regard to personal beliefs, I describe myself as agnostic, and do not subscribe to any organised religion.

I am in principle against abortion and consider it the killing of another human being. But I do accept that there are very specific, extreme instances where its availability is a necessary evil: an immediate threat to the life of the mother; in instances of rape and incest where the mother is deemed suicidal by relevant medical professionals; and finally, where the foetus itself is not viable.

I believe that with rights come responsibilities, and that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Thus I find elective abortions in'normal' pregnancies to derogate responsibility of both the mother and father of the child. Such abortions should neither be encouraged nor facilitated.

MARYSIA: Do you also see a derogation of a wider societal responsibility to help the mother, father, and child to outcomes other than abortion?

ANDREW: The wider society has a complete obligation to the child. The child is no way responsible for his or her existence, and is entirely dependent on others for his or her survival. While the parents should be assisted, I think it should be done in a way that does not risk encouraging growth in the number of unplanned pregnancies. Essentially, there should be a balance struck between the rights and responsibilities that I referred to earlier.

MARYSIA: How long and in what capacities have you been involved with Amnesty International?

ANDREW: I have been a constant member of Amnesty International Irish Section since 1995. In my time as an Amnesty member I have been active as a local group member and national co-ordinator of the Irish Section's Anti-Death Penalty Network. Most recently, I spent the last six years (Sept. 2001 - Oct. 2007) on the Executive Committee of Amnesty's Irish Section. I had to step down from this position owing to constitutional constraints (a maximum six-year term limit - 3 stints of two year terms).

MARYSIA: Why did you help start Roll Back Amnesty?

ANDREW: Roll Back Amnesty was born out of a frustration that I and others felt around Amnesty's seemingly inexorable drive towards a position on abortion, regardless of the consequences. This frustration crystalised at the 2007 Amnesty Annual Conference in Cork, Ireland, which significant numbers (+50) of pro-life activists protested. They received considerable support from passing traffic - not unsurprising given the Irish population's traditional wariness around the issue.

Further investigations led us to believe that the Irish Section's membership was not a lone voice in the wilderness. Members of other Amnesty Sections round the world had significant concerns about this policy initiative. We also were dismayed to learn that the 'consultation process' elsewhere singularly failed to give parity of esteem to the right to life of the unborn in comparison to the rights of the mother.

In our view, the discussion was predicated on the idea that there were no human rights implications to the abortion issue other than those concerning the mother. This idea is at variance with Amnesty's current abortion policy itself, which acknowledges that abortions should only be carried out within 'reasonable gestational limits.' In effect, the current policy implicitly acknowledges that the foetus does have a humanity of some shape or form.

To date we have contacted members in several countries. We are gradually working our way through the various Sections of Amnesty in a bid to reach out to other members. We feel that the discussion has been incomplete, and that ultimately the only sensible, defensible, and pragmatic position for Amnesty to adopt on this issue is one of neutrality. Any other position is detrimental to the organisation and all the other very good and very necessary work it does.

MARYSIA: Amnesty International works for the rights of women to live free of violence, such as rape, sterilization abuse, and domestic violence. Just as vitally, Amnesty takes a stand for the rights of LGBT persons,protesting censorship, police brutality, and hate crimes, among other offenses.

Quite tellingly, I think, Roll Back Amnesty does not argue with Amnesty's definition and defense of any of these as valid sexual and reproductive rights, as human rights. The objection is rather to putting abortion under this rubric.

But what makes abortion so different? Why shouldn't Amnesty treat it as simply another sexual/reproductive right among sexual/reproductive rights?

ANDREW: That's a very good question. Most people, bar those such as Peter Singer, the philosopher (who argues in favour of permitting infanticide), accept that at some point the foetus does obtain a human rights status -irrespective of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says of people being "born free and equal in dignity and rights."

It follows that abortion needs to be treated entirely differently than, for example, access to prophylactic contraception or voluntary sterilisation and so forth. Indeed, the fact that taking a position on abortion gets Amnesty involved in the ultimately insoluble issue of when life begins should have been reason enough for the organisation to be far more wary and circumspect than it has been to date.

MARYSIA: Please clarify Amnesty's current position on abortion.

ANDREW: The official position from the Amnesty.org website is here, in .pdf format:


It does call for abortion as a human right in what were referred to as the 'uncontroversial' issues:

1) For pregnancies arising out of rape
2) For pregnancies arising out of incest
3) For pregnancies that present a threat to the lives of the mothers or gravely risk their health.

A fourth clause calls for the decriminalisation of abortion in all circumstances. This, to most people's understanding, would de facto mean legalising abortion. It is also worth noting that the decriminalisation clause does not just pertain to the three criteria outlined above, but also all other abortions, carried out for whatever reasons.

MARYSIA: Please explain what problems might arise from this fourth clause.

ANDREW: As one member in New Zealand has observed, the decriminalisation clause could have the presumably unintended effect that Amnesty will call for the non-prosecution of back-street abortion providers.

And if this is not the case, if Amnesty only wants to decriminalise regulated and self-induced abortions? Others have observed that Amnesty is then indeed in the position of calling for some regulation/legalisation of abortion, despite its protests that it doesn’t seek to introduce abortion-favouring legislation.

Also, the call for decriminalisation in all circumstances can certainly be understood in the context of the ‘as night follows day scenario.’ In many jurisdictions, the decriminalisation of a particular issue usually is a precursor to legislation regulating that issue. A case in point is Ireland’s (entirely proper and belated) decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993. The relevant piece of legislation was replaced by a piece which set out the age of consent and so forth.

Finally, Amnesty USA has said it will campaign against the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003, as it criminalises the medical personnel involved. This method of abortion surely poses a very real difficulty for an organisation that vows to protect the right to life and the personal security of individuals born free and equal in dignity and in rights – unless of course that same organisation chooses to consciously turn away from an egregious human rights abuse.

MARYSIA: I personally have been involved with Amnesty for over 20 years. And I also have challenged the group's move away from abortion neutrality. According to reassurances from higher-ups, Amnesty does not intend to ever define abortion as a human right in all circumstances. But those reassurances look and sound mighty false. Do you and other RBA supporters also suspect that Amnesty higher-ups are pushing towards a general human right of abortion?

ANDREW: There is clearly a move on in that direction from some Sections/members. At last year's ICM (International Council Meeting),there was a motion brought forward to that effect. Needless to say, now that abortion is on the agenda, Amnesty conferences around the world will become yet another battleground for pro-life/pro-choice advocates.

We're beginning to see that happening already. AI UK faced an AGM (Annual General Meeting) with five separate motions around the abortion issue. Four years ago that would have been improbable, if not impossible, as everyone understood that Amnesty wanted to stay out of the issue.

As I alluded to previously, there is an intrinsic problem with a position on abortion that calls for abortions to be constrained by 'reasonable gestational limits'. It immediately grants or acknowledges a humanity regarding the foetus. To pretend otherwise is to indulge in semantics and sophistry. Amnesty's position now finds itself in all manner of philosophical and practical problems.

For example, Amnesty, having acknowledged that the foetus has some sort of human rights, now defers to national governments as to when those human rights begin to maintain. Obviously, for an organisation that calls for acknowledging and respecting the universality of human rights, this is very troubling.

Arguably, it is tantamount to Amnesty letting a despot decide what constitutes torture, and then campaigning on the issue from there. Indeed, the Chinese Government is notable in its view that its citizens are different from other humans around the globe, and thus don't share the same rights as the rest of the human race. To say the least, it is regrettable that Amnesty now finds itself playing a similar kind of game.

Also, nation states differ as to the permissible time limit for abortions. This fact throws up a quandary regarding women who are beyond the permitted limits in their countries and are denied abortions there under Amnesty's three limited criteria (rape, incest, threat to life). If the women are also denied the right to travel to other countries for abortions, will Amnesty treat them as prisoners of conscience?

If Amnesty doesn't treat them as prisoners of conscience, then the universality problem comes to the surface again. If Amnesty does not treat them as prisoners of conscience, it de facto supports a lowest common denominator approach regarding when abortions are permitted -which we understand to fall at China's seven month- limit. In this regard it is worth noting that medical advances now enable more and more premature babies born at six months gestation to survive. This trend will only become more prevalent over the coming decades.

Also, Amnesty has never previously taken a position where it could be argued that it advocates the taking of life. Regardless of one's feelings on the issue, and one's philosophical stance on when life begins, Amnesty has now completely destroyed its stance against lifetaking. At the very minimum, even those members who are not ardently 'pro-life' must accept that there is now a perception at large in some quarters that Amnesty advocates for lifetaking.

There are other issues of course, around the practical impact this issue has had, and is going to have on Amnesty in the years ahead. We could go into these problems, but suffice to say they are many, and they are complex.

MARYSIA: It's no surprise that prolifers consider Amnesty's move away from abortion neutrality a big mistake. However, Roll Back Amnesty voices the dissent and discontent of prochoice Amnesty members as well as prolife. Why do your prochoice supporters want Amnesty to go back to abortion neutrality?

ANDREW: The pro-choice Amnesty members who have supported us do so from the perspective of pragmatic concern. They point to the fact that Human Rights Watch and Medecin Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) already have a position on abortion. These two groups are notably not membership-based. From there our prochoice supporters argue that Amnesty is going into a political space that is already populated. In doing so, Amnesty has damaged its credibility and reputation in the eyes of very many long-time supporters, activists, and campaigning partners - most notably the Catholic Church.

In fairness to the Catholic Church, they didn't rock the boat when Amnesty campaigned contrary to Catholic Church ethos around contraception. They didn't threaten a schism when Amnesty publically described the Catholic Church as being in an 'unholy alliance' back in the late nineties. And they gave Amnesty quite a bit of warning that Amnesty's taking of a position on abortion would threaten the previous 46 years of partnership between the two institutions.

The pro-choice members also acknowledge that the issue isn't going to go away any time soon. Such is the divisiveness and emotive nature of the debate that it could only hurt the organisation over the long term. Only pro-choice advocates will now feel comfortable joining Amnesty, with the inevitable effect that eventually Amnesty would be perceived in some quarters as 'just another abortion-friendly lobby group' populated by pro-choice minded people. In real terms, our prochoice supporters are concerned that Amnesty is going to paint itself into a corner from which it won't be able to extricate itself.

It might also be worth noting what an Orlando, Florida-based local Amnesty Group said of the decision.

"Our Orlando chapter of Amnesty International recently voted to not support AIUSA's recent position on abortion. We feel that this position upsets both pro-lifers, because of its acknowledgement that abortion is sometimes necessary, and pro-choicers who feel the organization falls short in advocating for women's right to choose. We feel that there are a number of groups advocating for both sides and that Amnesty International should continue its much-needed work on it' current campaigns. "

MARYSIA: Thank you very much, Andrew.

Whatever your own personal take on abortion, current and former AI members are most welcome to join the work of Roll Back Amnesty at http://www.rollbackamnesty.com/

If you advocate a consistent life ethic, please also stand up and be counted at peace psychologist Rachel MacNair's Registry of Consistent-Life Supporters of Amnesty International at http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/consistentlife


Anonymous said...

True true but waht can anyone do ??
Seems that Amnesty has been hijacked by the pro choice brigade.


Marysia said...

V, what can anyone do?
Register your dissent from Amnesty's policy shift.
This is not guaranteed to make a difference. But not saying anything *is* guaranteed to make *no* difference.