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Amnesty’s Travesty of the Human Right To Life (‘Amnesty’s Travesty Of Human Rights’, Part II)

by Peter D. Williams

The basis that Amnesty International (AI) gives for its campaign to decriminalise abortion practice is not only internally incoherent, but in absurdly avoiding taking a position on when the human being begins to exist, it betrays the basic concern for equal human dignity that should form the inspiration for its mission. Amnesty’s developed position on human rights law continues this divergence of its practical position from its founding principles.

AI claim that they do not “promote abortion as a human right” (which is just as well, because as the San Jose Articles account, it is not), but they do allege that Amnesty “bases its policies on international law, which is silent on the point of when life begins”. This claim is highly dubious. For one thing, since the human being begins at conception as a matter of biological fact, human rights documents do not need to take a position on the beginning of life. It is enough that they take a position on what type of being possesses rights: the human being. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states rightly that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, and its first article refers to “All human beings” being free and equal in dignity and rights. It is in this light that Article 3 declares that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

Indeed, the Declaration forbids denying human rights based on unjust discrimination. Article 2 states that “[e]veryone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”, and Article 7 says that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. So, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is in keeping with the clear words of the Universal Declaration, when in its preamble it says “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth”. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) absolutely prohibits the execution of women who are pregnant.

International human rights legislation then, establishes the right to life of all human beings, including – either explicitly or by implication – children before they are born. Surely this is enough to confirm the necessity of protections for unborn children from being killed in abortion? Not according to Amnesty.

In their recent submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) consultation for their General Comment on the human right to life, Amnesty claim that “international human rights standards are clear that the right to life protections apply only after birth”.  This is a surprising assertion, because no international or regional human rights treaty says any such thing. They try to play down the preambular reference in the CRC to protections “before” birth, by the fact that it was voted that stronger language not be used. Treaties are political documents however, and whatever victories those who militated against protections against the unborn might have secured, the fact is that the CRC as finally written does indeed say that protections apply “before as well as after birth”. This is important because the primary source for the elucidation of human rights standards is the treaties themselves, and one of the very purposes of a treaty preamble, as with that of any document, is that it must be taken into account in interpreting the text that follows.

Indeed, the political context supports rather than contradicts the true meaning of the text. Some States were sufficiently concerned by the significance of the wording of the preamble that they made declarations when becoming party to the CRC to put their interpretation on the record. The UK, for example, made a declaration after ratifying the Convention stating that “The United Kingdom interprets the Convention as applicable only following a live birth”. France and Luxembourg made declarations to the effect that in their view the Convention presented no obstacle to their legislation on abortion.  The fact that these declarations were made implies that the Convention could otherwise be interpreted as prohibiting abortion, quite the opposite of the view contended for by Amnesty.

Further, whilst it is true (as AI reminds us) that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and other UN committees have criticised States for laws which restrict abortion, they have not adopted Amnesty’s extreme position that the unborn child has no rights whatsoever before birth.

Whilst international states are willing to ignore the text of treaties that they sign, AI is not justified in following their example. Any reading of the international human rights documents that attempts to exclude unborn children from the category of ‘human being’, and thereby from being the recipients of human rights protections, is divorced from scientific fact, and the philosophy of human dignity that lies at the heart of such standards. It is contrary not only to the letter of universal human rights but their spirit also to attempt to push a perniciously restrictive interpretation of the fundamental human right to life, and in doing so marginalise the most vulnerable members of the human family.


This post is part of the ‘Amnesty’s Travesty of Human Rights’ series, and is cross-posted on the Blog of the Life website as part of our joint #AmnestyTravesty campaign. Please go to and sign the petition!