Amnesty International’s policy change on abortion displays a breathtaking contempt for the views of its core members
It’s not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes. No, this
isn’t an article concerning a foreign totalitarian regime, but a
reference to one of the world’s most well-known human rights
organisations, Amnesty International, who recently adopted a
controversial policy to ‘defend women’s access to abortion’, amid
accusations of censorship, disregarding the views of its members,
adopting the policy in secret and misrepresenting its true scope.
Amnesty insists that the policy was “overwhelmingly adopted by the
global membership through our democratic structures” following
extensive membership consultation over a two year period from
2005-2007. However there are reasons to question this version of events.
Consider Amnesty UK’s consultation exercise. AIUK’s membership demonstrated that a majority of respondents (52.8% to 35.3%) opposed the change of Amnesty’s previous position of neutrality on the issue but were ignored by Amnesty’s executive, who voted in favour of the change of policy in Mexico City last month.
Such was the opposition to the policy in Amnesty’s Irish section that it claimed it was opting out of the policy, a move swiftly stamped on by Amnesty’s deputy secretary-general Kate Gilmore who said:
"No one country can step away from the decisions of the organization as a whole."
Similarly, Amnesty USA has also faced accusations of sharp practice, with one former AIUSA member said that members were being deceived about the policy consultation as late as May 2006:
“callers to Amnesty’s US national office were even told that Amnesty was not in fact considering a change in policy on abortion at all, and that this was just a rumour!”
Another Amnesty US activist, Dr Rachel MacNair, said:
“U.S. members were balloted online in the Fall of 2006, in the members-only section of the AIUSA web page, with a paucity of publicity such that many members had no idea it was happening,” adding “To my knowledge, the results were never released.”
MacNair had tried to distribute leaflets about the policy at the plenary of AIUSA’s March board of directors meeting. However, “a staff member prohibited me from doing so. When I asked her point-blank if I was being censored, her answer was, and I quote, ‘Yes’.”
Secrecy seems to have characterised AIUSA’s abortion policy consultation throughout. In May this year, Ryan T. Anderson unearthed a buried policy statement from the members-only, restricted-content page of AI’s US website:
“It is very important to be aware of the following: This policy will not be made public at this time. As the IEC [Amnesty International’s International Executive Committee] has written to all sections, "There is to be no proactive external publication of the policy position or of the fact of its adoption issued. This means no section or structure is to issue a press release or public statement or external communication of any kind on the policy decision.”
More than one observer has wondered how Amnesty would view attempts by a totalitarian regime that attempted to cover up its intentions in this way. Yet beyond even these concerns, Amnesty’s new abortion policy raises profound questions for member and non-member alike, and it isn’t just activists on either side of the abortion debate who should be concerned. Amnesty’s framing of abortion in terms of human rights has considerable implications for democratic debate and national sovereignty as it raises the possibility that where decriminalisation is rejected by democratically elected governments such as Ireland, Poland or Malta, or where there are moves to introduce regulation (such as by banning practices such as partial birth abortion), interested parties may try to circumvent democratic processes and insist that governments must amend their laws so as not to be in breach of supposed international human rights laws.
In summary, anyone who thinks that democratically elected governments should, even in the most contentious areas, be the ultimate arbiters of policy must be disturbed by the potential for unelected, unaccountable NGOs such as Amnesty to remove such issues from democratic debate.
Click here to join the Facebook group that opposes Amnesty’s abortion policy.