Leaders of the international human rights group meeting in Mexico are expected to reaffirm the policy adopted by its executive board in April after two years of soul-searching within the organisation.
The decision, which will also cover women whose health is at risk from giving birth, follows the use of mass rape as a political weapon in the conflict in Darfur. But Amnesty has infuriated the Vatican by expanding its definition of human rights to include access to abortion, prompting leading Catholics to accuse the organisation of having “betrayed its mission” . Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has threatened that unless Amnesty’s policy is reversed, the Vatican will call upon Catholics worldwide to boycott the organisation.
“If, in fact, Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organisations must withdraw their support because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, Amnesty International has betrayed its mission,” he said.
Catholic delegates at this week’s international conference of the organisation are likely to raise the issue, but the majority of the 400 delegates from around the world are believed to be firmly in favour of retaining the new policy.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by British lawyer and Roman Catholic convert Peter Benenson to campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Since then, with the backing of the Vatican, it has grown to a worldwide membership of 1.8 million and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.
Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denies the organisation has become “pro-abortion” insisting the organisation took as its guide legal not theological imperatives. “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations,” she said.
“Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God.”
The Vatican is accusing Amnesty of double standards, because it opposes the death penalty in all circumstances but, it argues, under some circumstances will now condone the killing of an unborn child.
Abortion is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other internationally recognised human rights documents, such as the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which stresses the importance of protecting children “before as well as after birth”.
Darfur is not the first place in the world where military conquerors have used mass rape to subdue a population but the report put together by Amnesty International observers in the region in 2004 was particularly harrowing. As well as being traumatised, the victims were frequently injured or afflicted with sexual transmitted diseases, and left to cope alone with unwanted children. One survivor said: “Five to six men would rape us, one after the other, for hours during six days, every night. My husband could not forgive me after this. He disowned me.”
Even in countries where the law permits abortion for rape victims, women who seek the operation can encounter a wall of obstruction. In Peru, a 17-year-old girl discovered that her foetus had anencephaly – meaning that it was going to be born without a brain – but a doctor refused to allow her access to an abortion. She was compelled to give birth and breastfeed the child for four days before its died.
In the Sante Fe province of Argentina, a social worker told the organisation Human Rights Watch about a woman who went into hospital after having an unsafe abortion and was bleeding badly. “A doctor started to examine her, and when he realised, he threw down his instruments and said: ‘This is an abortion. You go ahead and die’.”
The Vatican has received influential backing in the US from the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Berrigan.