Amnesty Intl. Refuses to Change Abortion Policy Despite Catholic Objections

The worldwide human rights group Amnesty International has no plans to revoke its new policy backing abortion for women subject to sexual violence, rape or incest despite strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.

Secretary General Irene Khan said on Monday that a meeting of Amnesty's International Council in Mexico City on Aug. 11 would not endorse or disapprove of the policy because it has already been adopted after long consultations with members.

The Catholic Church, which worked closely with Amnesty in the past in campaigns such as one to abolish the death penalty, has urged its members to cut off all support for the group, founded by a Catholic layman to defend political prisoners.

Khan said the new policy, inspired by rapes in war zones such as Darfur, urged governments to provide safe abortions when women conceive after rape or incest or when a pregnant woman's life is threatened.

"The purpose of the Council meeting is not to endorse this policy because this policy already exists," she told Reuters, adding the issue might still come up for discussion.

The policy, debated among Amnesty's 2.2 million members since 2005, was quietly adopted in April. Last month, the Vatican -- which considers abortion to be murder and never justified -- said Amnesty had "betrayed its mission".

Cardinal Renato Marino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said: "If, in fact, Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organisations must withdraw their support."


Early this month, Bishop William Skylstad, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the decision "undermines Amnesty's longstanding moral credibility" and divided its own members, including many Catholics active in it.

"I call upon the members of Amnesty's International Council to reverse this decision," he said in a statement.

Khan stressed the London-based group, which previously had no official stand on abortion, had debated the change internally for 2-1/2 years and made a decision consistent with the group's long-standing campaign against violence towards women.

"Having a policy doesn't mean that we are in favour of abortion as a right, that's not the position we are taking as an organisation," she said.

"A policy has been made ... that Amnesty should support women to be able to make the decision to terminate pregnancy without fear of violence in these limited cases of sexual violence or where the life of the mother or her health is very seriously threatened."

Khan expressed disappointment in the way the Vatican had cast the dispute, but said the disagreement should not prevent cooperation with the Catholic Church on other issues.

"There are many human rights issues on which we differ, but we are a human rights organisation, our principles are based on international human rights law and human rights values."

"The Catholic Church is a religious organisation drawing its principles from other sources," she said. "Where we coincide, we have a very fruitful partnership and I look forward to continuing partnership on those issues."