Amnesty, abortion and the abuse of women

By Amnesty International
16 Oct 2007

In the confrontation between the Vatican and Amnesty International over access to sexual and reproductive services for abused women, the issue of what is and is not being advocated by the internationally respected human rights organisation - itself founded by a Catholic, and supported by a huge number of Christians of all persuasions - has often been obscured. Here Amnesty explains its position and contests representations of it by some critics.

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Amnesty International's policy on sexual and reproductive rights does not promote abortion as a universal right and the organization [does not take a position] on the rights or wrongs of abortion. The policy recognizes 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. Amnesty International stands by its policy, adopted in April 2007, that aims to support the decriminalisation of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women's access to abortion - within reasonable gestational limits - when their health or life are in danger.

At its International Council Meeting held in Mexico [in August 2007], Amnesty International's leaders committed the organization to strengthening its work on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and other factors contributing to women's recourse to abortion and overwhelmingly affirmed the organization's policy on selected aspects of abortion. More than 400 Amnesty International representatives from more than 75 countries - of many different nationalities, ethnicities, ages, religions and cultures - attended the meeting and affirmed Amnesty International's commitment to women's human rights.

Amnesty International first considered the question of whether there were human rights issues implicated in the question of abortion around two years ago as part of its work on the organization's global campaign to Stop Violence Against Women. Amnesty International's position is consistent with international human rights and humanitarian law and was arrived at following extensive consultation with its membership. Amnesty International actively explored what the human rights issues related to abortion are and found that:

* women are sentenced to death for obtaining an abortion after trials that fail to meet international human rights standards for fair trials in countries such as Nigeria;
* women are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for having abortions when the evidence supported their defense of having had a spontaneous miscarriage; and
* women with ectopic pregnancies (when the embryo attaches to the fallopian tube and has no chance of survival but when untreated can cause the fallopian tube to burst, threatening the woman's life and, if she survives, her fertility) were denied life saving medical intervention.

In addition, Amnesty International documented cases of sexual violence in armed conflict that were devastating to women and lead to their ostracization. This trauma and exclusion was exacerbated when the sexual violence (typically in the form of gang rape) resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. Women and girls who were raped, including by family members, in non-conflict situations were also forced to carry the pregnancy to term.

Amnesty International also learned that, unlike in any other situation, medical service providers will often refuse to treat women suffering from complications related to abortion. There is no analogous treatment, i.e., the denial of medical services because the person in need of medical treatment is perceived or alleged to have committed a crime. People who overdose on drugs that are deemed illegal receive treatment, suspects in violent crimes who are shot or otherwise injured in the course of the crime receive medical treatment, and combatants in armed conflict who are hors de combat receive medical treatment. But women are denied this treatment, reflecting the exceptionalism around the issue of abortion.

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.

In response to the position of the Vatican's Secretary of State, Amnesty International notes the right of the Vatican to hold its views on abortion and acknowledges human rights issues on which common ground does exist, including work against the death penalty, the release of prisoners of conscience and the abolition of torture. Amnesty International vigorously defends and respects the rights of individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. The matter of whether individuals, of any faith, agree with or oppose Amnesty International's policy on sexual and reproductive rights, which includes selected aspects on abortion, is for the individual to decide and should be respected.

To read more about Amnesty International's work on sexual and reproductive rights, please go to: http://web.amnesty.org/actforwomen/sexual_and_reproductive_rights-eng

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Note from Ekklesia: We have reproduced Amnesty's response to its critics because we greatly value AI's work and hope that it would not be imperiled by the disagreement over this policy. The concerns and conditions of women that AI is seeking to support are real, horrifying and morally demanding. Few people regard abortion as desirable, but many who see life as a gift and want to encourage alternatives believe that criminalization is the wrong way to bring change or to achieve justice and compassion for all. A better approach is needed - one which seeks to build solidarity not division in the face of suffering and life-or-death decisions.

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