Amnesty Affirms Limited Pro-Choice Commitment


In a move that has garnered both praise and condemnation, Amnesty International (AI) has decided to support access to abortion for women in cases of rape, incest or violence, or where the pregnancy jeopardizes a mother's life or health. The initial decision was taken in April, but was confirmed when the AI international council meeting in Mexico gave it overwhelming support.

Amnesty International officials said the organization would "support the decriminalization of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women's access to abortion . . . when their health or human rights are in danger."

The London-based human rights organization was founded to defend and aid prisoners of conscience. Delegates from AI are defending this change as part of a larger global drive against violence, discrimination and abuse targeting women, including rape as a "weapon of war" in conflicts such as the one in the western Sudan region of Darfur.

"There are many human rights issues involved in organized sexual violence targeting women," said A. Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director for international legal issues, in a telephone interview from New York yesterday.

She said the new policy would not detract from Amnesty's focus on political repression, but added, "We can't as an organization look only at human rights issues that implicate men."

Not all AI members and supporters think this is a good move. A leading British Bishop has resigned. And in a case of rather shaky reporting the Times Online is claiming that pop stars Christina Aguilera and Avril Lavigne affiliated with Amnesty may pull out because of their anti-choice views.

In response to the AI policy shift, the Vatican's Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, said that the Vatican maintains that abortion should not be available to rape victims. AI's response includes a moving explanation of why women's reproductive rights are indeed human rights:

Amnesty International finds it unacceptable for women to be imprisoned for seeking or obtaining an abortion, or for women to be denied access to abortion services even when the UN Committee on Human Rights has held that forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term that was a result of sexual violence in armed conflict is a form of torture; and in non-conflict situations cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Amnesty International finds the preventable death of 70,000 women per year — and the denial of medical services in a range of circumstances from ectopic pregnancies to complications from unsafe abortions — to be unacceptable. These are a violation of a woman's right to life, right to health, right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman degrading treatment and punishment and the right to non-discrimination.

See more about AI's position on reproductive and sexual health here.

Interestingly, a poll taken by an anti-choice organization in the UK seems to show significant agreement with AI's move:

Do you agree that AI should develop policy to enable research and action to achieve the following:

  • decriminalization of abortion
  • access to quality services for the management of complications arising from abortions
  • access to abortion in cases of rape, sexual assault, incest, and risk to a woman's lie

Respondents replied:

  •     Yes: 45.4%
  •     No: 45.7%
  •     Undecided: 8.0%
  •     No answer: 0.8%

Those numbers are pretty close, and if you look at the other questions it becomes clear that for an organization called the "Pro-Life Alliance," the opposition to Amnesty's decision is decidedly not overwhelming. Perhaps all the press coverage that is reporting Amnesty's position as radical and alienating is off the mark.

While I'm sure we would like to see Amnesty International go all the way and support a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, their new stance is significant for international human rights organizing. Seeing women's reproductive rights as human rights, is not only a deep theoretical shift, but it also gives advocates on the ground international human rights tools they have been denied thus far.

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