There has been a very public falling out in recent weeks between Amnesty International (AI) and the Catholic Church regarding the decision of the human rights organisation to change its policy on abortion. This has involved AI going from a position of neutrality to one favouring decriminalisation and access to abortion for the victims of rape, incest and in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.
The initial response from the Vatican came from Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, who announced donations to AI would cease. He also urged Catholics to reconsider gifts to the organisation.The latest high profile Catholic figure to withdraw his membership has been Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland who claimed the decision contravened "that basic and most fundamental of all human rights, the right to life."
Previously, Bishop Michael Evans of East Anglia had resigned his membership after 31 years. “The Catholic Church has no desire for women who have been through the trauma of abortion to be punished; they need compassion and healing. Women who suffer complications after an abortion should obviously receive quality care. But our proper indignation regarding pervasive violence against women should not cloud our judgment about our duty to protect the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life.” said Bishop Evans.
AI was founded in 1961 by Catholic Peter Benenson and has championed the cause of prisoners of conscience down the years. The organisation has more than a million members worldwide, many of them Catholics.
It has no doubt been the efforts of the organisation to broaden its mandate, beyond simply letter writing on behalf of prisoners of conscience, that has caused problems. This, however, has had to happen. For too long, AI was the middle class reserve of those who felt they could change the world by sending a letter but never moving beyond that to greater political engagement.
The debate over Catholics and AI has for much of the time resembled a dialogue of the deaf. AI has displayed an uncharacteristic secretiveness about the whole process of making the decision. Questions of accountability no doubt arise. Yet on the other side there are many Catholic commentators who wilfully appear to misinterpret the new policy position. They continue - despite repeated denials - to promote the view that the new policy position amounts to campaigning to promote abortion on demand. This is not the case and such misinformation does not help anyone come to an informed and rational position on the question.
From a Catholic perspective it offers no solution at all to take the line that if AI won't set its policies according to what Catholics demand, then they walk off and support another or even set up their own human rights organisation. Human rights activist Bruce Kent has urged Catholics to stay in and fight their corner. “AI should stick to the things it does best I hope next year that a proposal will be put forward for funding to be ring fenced so Catholics can avoid their funds being used on issues like abortion. I think Catholics should stay in the organisation and seek to change the position,” said Mr Kent.
A matter of real concern relating to the anti-AI lobby is the prevalence of alpha males in their ranks. Attending one debate on the topic, I was struck by the vehemence of the males who opposed any change in policy. They were extremely intolerant of any view other than their own and particularly unwilling to listen to women on the subject. The position now being put forward on abortion by AI is something that should be acceptable to most Catholics. It is not, as some are making it out to be, a mantra to campaign for abortion on demand across the world. It is a simple policy statement.
The policy is born out of much of the abuse that has gone on in war zones such as Darfur where rape is used as a weapon of war by opposing armies. There do seem to be some very unwise comments, coming from some of the Catholic pro-life brigade, on the question of abortion. Talk of threats to deny communion to politicians who don't do what they are told on votes, as some have suggested, does not really help to advance the case for tolerance and understanding.
The right note was struck by Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster Bernard Longley, who when asked whether he would give communion to an MP who voted in favour of abortion, explained how he would advice the Church's teachings on the subject. "The conscience must be guided by the Church's teachings," said Bishop Longley. This consensual approach is far more likely to win the hearts and votes than the threatening punitive actions.
There needs to be a debate on abortion in the country as a whole as well as within the Catholic Church. The logical extension of the Church’s attitude toward the new AI policy must be that it opposes abortion in all circumstances. So does that mean it wants the act made illegal and driven into the back streets?
The real sin of abortion is when it is forced on so many women due to their own socio-economic position. No woman willingly undertakes to abort her child, there are always other driving factors and it is these that need to be tackled. The Catholic Church needs to condemn a little less and support a little more.
More resources to provide valuable support services would no doubt reduce the number of abortions. An agreement also needs to be reached with AI, allowing Catholics to remain at the vanguard of its work. However, these advances can only be made if a reasoned approach is adopted by all sides. Retiring to the bunker with judgmental attitudes serves nobody very well.