11 September 2007

Africa: Should Amnesty Terminate Abortion Support?


Nairobi — The recent falling out between human-rights group Amnesty International and the Catholic Church over the former's decision in April to end its neutral stance on abortion and support it in certain circumstances - sexual violence, rape, incest or where the health or human-rights of women are "in danger" - is an unfortunate development.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is murder whatever the circumstances and has urged its millions of members worldwide to cut all links and support to Amnesty International. Amnesty was founded in 1961 by the late Peter Benenson, an English convert to Catholicism, to fight for the release of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials for political prisoners and for an end to torture, ill treatment, political killings, disappearances and the death penalty.

The Vatican has accused Amnesty of double standards because while the latter opposes the death penalty under all circumstances, it recently said that under special circumstances, abortion is acceptable. Among the many voices that have supported the Church's decision is the Catholic Bishop of East Anglia, the Rt Rev Michael Evans, 55, who has become the first high-profile Catholic in England to withdraw support for the human-rights organisation after 31 years.

HE WAS CATEGORICAL that, "Our proper indignation regarding pervasive violence against women should not cloud our judgement about our duty to protect the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life. The Catholic Church shares Amnesty's strong commitment to oppose violence against women, but such appalling violence must not be answered by violence against the most vulnerable and defenceless form of human life in a woman's womb."

Renato Cardinal Martino, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said Amnesty had "betrayed its mission" by abandoning its traditional neutral policy on abortion.

But Kate Gilmore, the organisation's London-based executive deputy secretary-general, argues that, "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."

"Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human-rights, not specific theologies," she said in a statement on June 14. "It means that sometimes the secular framework of human rights that Amnesty International upholds will converge neatly with the standpoints of certain faith-based communities; sometimes it will not."

Today, there is a highly complex secular set of legal and political documents and institutions, whose express purpose is the supposed protection and promotion of the fundamental rights of all human beings everywhere. A principal aim of advocates of human-rights is for these rights to receive universal legal recognition since their practical efficacy is largely dependent upon their developing into enforceable legal rights. And, because of the special status of the weak and marginalised, many peoples' support of human-rights includes an element of sympathy.

THE MORAL DOCTRINE OF human rights aims at identifying the fundamental prerequisites for each human being to lead a minimally good life. In recent times, this aspiration has been enshrined in various declarations and legal conventions: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the European Convention on Human Rights (1954), and the International Covenant on Civil and Economic Rights (1966). Together, these three documents form the centrepiece of a moral doctrine that many consider capable of providing the contemporary geopolitical order with what amounts to an international Bill of Rights.

However, it is important to note that the doctrine of human rights does not aim to be a fully comprehensive moral doctrine, secular or otherwise. An appeal to human-rights does not provide us with a fully comprehensive account of morality per se. For example, they don't tell us whether lying is inherently immoral.

But because it is universally held that human rights should supersede other social and political considerations, it is important to determine whether or not there is a hierarchy of these rights. Or are they all equal?

RELIGIOUS TEACHINGS aside, can the doctrine of human-rights, which is sacrosanct to Amnesty International, justify abortion? Can the doctrine of human rights itself be a cause of suffering, oppression and injustice? Can a human right be an ethical reason to justify a harmful act against another person?

While the full significance of human rights may only be finally dawning on some people, the concept itself has a historical heritage going back more than 2,000 years.

IN HIS 350 BC BOOK, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that natural justice, "is that which has the same validity everywhere and does not depend upon acceptance." Thus, the criteria for determining a truly rational system of justice supersedes social and historical conventions. And the means for determining the form and content of natural justice is the exercise of reason free from the distorting effects of mere prejudice or desire.

In the 17th century, John Locke's ideas provided the precedent of establishing legitimate political authority upon a rights foundation when he argued that the protection and promotion of individuals' natural rights - to life, liberty, and property - was the sole justification for the creation of government.

In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant's ideals of equality and the moral autonomy of rational human beings, provides the means for justifying human-rights as the basis for self-determination grounded within the authority of human reason, not the will of some superhuman being. His "categorical imperative" is, "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

In his book, Making Sense of Human Rights, Prof James W. Nickel defines human-rights as, "Basic moral guarantees that people in all countries and cultures allegedly have, simply because they are people? and that compliance with them is mandatory rather than discretionary. Human rights are frequently held to be universal in the sense that all people have and should enjoy them, and to be independent in the sense that they exist and are available as standards of justification and criticism whether or not they are recognised and implemented by the legal system or officials of a country."

Protecting one's own fundamental rights and interests requires reciprocal recognition and respect of those of others.

The appeal to pure self-interest, such as that used to justify abortion, ultimately cannot provide a basis for securing the universal moral community at the heart of the doctrine of human-rights. It cannot justify the claims of universal human rights.

Amnesty international should not join those who do harm to others by claiming that the harm is intended to respect certain "rights." To do so is to consider the human body subservient to human rights; we don't exist to serve rights but rights exist to serve us.

Amnesty does a lot of good defending human rights globally. Jumping onto the pro-abortion bandwagon is a distortion of its work. Amnesty should resume its neutral stance by remaining silent on the rights and wrongs of abortion, and focus on things that are clearly human-rights violations, such as child soldiers, political prisoners, torture, rape, and the existence of Guantanamo Bay.

On the other hand, I feel the Catholic Church should allow its members to still donate to Amnesty International, with conditions that their funds are not used to support abortion but go to the organisation's traditional human-rights and justice issues.

Okiya Omtatah Okoiti is a Nairobi-based playwright and businessman.

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