Benedict XV1: Mired in the past, & lacking Amnesty International's courage & compassion on abortion Print E-mail
 London ~~ Monday August 13 2007

Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims' abortion rights

By Andy McSmith

Amnesty International is set to defy the Vatican and risk the wrath of Catholics around the world over its decision to back abortion for rape victims.

Leaders of the international human rights group meeting in Mexico are expected to reaffirm the policy adopted by its executive board in April after two years of soul-searching within the organisation.

The decision, which will also cover women whose health is at risk from giving birth, follows the use of mass rape as a political weapon in the conflict in Darfur. But Amnesty has infuriated the Vatican by expanding its definition of human rights to include access to abortion, prompting leading Catholics to accuse the organisation of having "betrayed its mission". Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has threatened that unless Amnesty's policy is reversed, the Vatican will call upon Catholics worldwide to boycott the organisation.

"If, in fact, Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organisations must withdraw their support because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, Amnesty International has betrayed its mission," he said.

Catholic delegates at this week's international conference of the organisation are likely to raise the issue, but the majority of the 400 delegates from around the world are believed to be firmly in favour of retaining the new policy.

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by British lawyer and Roman Catholic convert Peter Benenson to campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience. Since then, with the backing of the Vatican, it has grown to a worldwide membership of 1.8 million and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

Amnesty's deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denies the organisation has become "pro-abortion" insisting the organisation took as its guide legal not theological imperatives. "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," she said.

"Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God."

The Vatican is accusing Amnesty of double standards, because it opposes the death penalty in all circumstances but, it argues, under some circumstances will now condone the killing of an unborn child.

Abortion is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or other internationally recognised human rights documents, such as the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which stresses the importance of protecting children "before as well as after birth".

Darfur is not the first place in the world where military conquerors have used mass rape to subdue a population but the report put together by Amnesty International observers in the region in 2004 was particularly harrowing. As well as being traumatised, the victims were frequently injured or afflicted with sexual transmitted diseases, and left to cope alone with unwanted children. One survivor said: "Five to six men would rape us, one after the other, for hours during six days, every night. My husband could not forgive me after this. He disowned me."

Even in countries where the law permits abortion for rape victims, women who seek the operation can encounter a wall of obstruction. In Peru, a 17-year-old girl discovered that her foetus had anencephaly - meaning that it was going to be born without a brain - but a doctor refused to allow her access to an abortion. She was compelled to give birth and breastfeed the child for four days before its died.

In the Sante Fe province of Argentina, a social worker told the organisation Human Rights Watch about a woman who went into hospital after having an unsafe abortion and was bleeding badly. "A doctor started to examine her, and when he realised, he threw down his instruments and said: 'This is an abortion. You go ahead and die'."

The Vatican has received influential backing in the US from the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Berrigan.

 London ~~ Monday August 13 2007

A pope who refuses to compromise

By Peter Popham in Rome

The Church may change its mind about some things, but abortion is not one of them. The latest development on the subject, under Pope Benedict XVI, is nothing to do with the basic policy but rather with its ramifications for politicians and organisations such as Amnesty International.

The row with Amnesty marks a hardening of the Catholic Church's resolve to take on liberal figures and organisations which have formerly been seen as the church's natural allies; a greater readiness to insist that its convictions on subjects such as abortion, where the Church has no intention of compromising, are more important than alliances with people and groups whose roots and values are secular - values from which the church establishment feels estranged.

The essence of the Church's teaching on abortion is that a human being possesses a soul from the moment of conception. "Surely I was sinful at the time of my birth, sinful from the moment my mother conceived me," declares David in Psalm 51. Since sinfulness belongs to the spirit not to the body, the growing foetus must be in possession of a soul quite as much as the growing child.

The church's teaching on abortion, said Pope John Paul II in 1995, "is unchanged and unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God."

The position is an absolute one: no balance of possible gains and losses is admitted to the debate. For the Church, the mental or physical suffering of the mother, the circumstances of the child's conception or its life prospects are equally irrelevant.

It was a grave problem for the Church when Mexico voted in the spring to legalise abortion. Asked if he would support Mexican bishops who excommunicated congressmen who had voted for the legalisation, Pope Benedict told reporters that he would. "It is part of the code. It is based simply on the principle that the killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going in Communion with the body of Christ."

But the Pope's affirmation was swiftly softened by his aides.

 London ~~ Monday August 13 2007

Rape in Darfur persuaded charity to act

By Anne Penketh, Diplomatic Editor

When observers from Amnesty International visited Darfur in 2004, they were appalled by the number of rape victims they encountered.

The women and girls fall victim to rape as they collect firewood outside the refugee camps. Many have been gang-raped in front of their families as the conquering Janjaweed militia burnt down their homes.

Hundreds of rape cases, including against girls as young as seven or nine, were documented by human rights workers at the height of the ethnic cleansing in Darfur in 2004.

To allow the victims of mass rape to give birth is arguably tantamount to complicity in genocide. Because the most horrible conclusion of rape as a weapon of war is that it can change the ethnic makeup of a country. In the case of Darfur, it could mean the steady Arabisation of the next generation.

In 2005, about 100 countries took a landmark decision agreeing that rape should be acrime against humanity, which could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The court's statutes include "rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" as a crime against humanity, when used as part of a "widespread or systematic attack" against the civilian population. Today, the former Sudanese former interior minister, Ahmad Harun, and Ali Kushayb, have been accused by the court of acting together to commit war crimes, including mass rape, against Darfur's civilians.

According to ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Ali Kushayb - known as "colonel of colonels" in west Darfur - victimised the local population "through mass rape and other sexual offences". Mr Harun was quoted as saying: "Since the children of the Fur had become rebels, all the Fur and what they had, had become booty" of the Janjaweed.

Last May, the court issued arrest warrants for the pair. However, although Mr Kushayb is reportedly in custody in Sudan, the Sudanese authorities have refused to hand over the men for trial. The loophole for Sudan, which the government has exploited by saying that its own judicial process is under way, is that the ICC can only come into play when a state is unwilling or unable to prosecute the crimes in national courts.

The systematic use of rape has been documented in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. But it was most reported in Rwanda, where according to the World Bank and Unifem,as many as 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.

The ICC is also hearing cases against the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic.