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Amnesty’s Travesty of Unborn Humanity (‘Amnesty’s Travesty Of Human Rights’, Part I)

by Peter D. Williams

In the early 1960s, the English labour lawyer Peter Benenson founded a group to campaign for the rights of prisoners of conscience. This organisation, Amnesty, would grow into what is now Amnesty International (AI), a key means by which ordinary people could campaign to end torture and detention without trial, and call for fair treatment when trial begins. Over time however, this mission became broadened to include a wider human rights remit. In the latter stages of this expansion however, Amnesty became alienated from the concern for equal human dignity from which it sprang.

In 2007, AI’s Executive Committee controversially voted to begin to campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion across the world. Initially this policy was kept secret to the extent that an Amnesty worker sick of ‘hidden agendas’ and unhappy with the institutional ‘bias’ in the organisation itself released their preparatory documents to Wikileaks. In these, and in the official FAQs and justifications they gave once the policy was eventually announced, Amnesty enunciates an ostensibly moderate position, oft-cited as such by those who personally disagree with abortion but still wish to support them.

AI claims that they do not campaign for the ‘legalisation’ of abortion, or for a ‘human right to abortion’, but merely for “the removal of all criminal penalties (including imprisonment, fines, and other punishments) against those seeking, obtaining, providing information about, or carrying out abortions”. They believe this is justified on the basis that the consequences of “restrictive abortion laws and policies” are that women are denied “access to safe abortion services where continued pregnancy threatens their lives or health” or when they are made pregnant after rape and incest, and to “life-saving medical treatment for abortion complications” especially after the incidence of illegal abortions (to which they also object). They also oppose the ill-treatment of women who are criminalised by abortion. Their campaign to decriminalise abortion is rationalised then on the basis that trying to “stop violence against women, protest torture and ill-treatment, and promote non-discrimination and the right to health are fundamental areas of AI’s mission”.

Now, much could, and will, be said about the claims made in this position, but the fundamental problem with it is that it conveniently ignores a matter that should be basic to its very mission: the humanity and rights of unborn children. As noted, AI says that it does not take a position on whether abortion should be legal or whether it is right or wrong, and this is because it states that it takes no position on “when life begins”. Yet this is nothing short of laughably bizarre. Given that AI’s mottos is ‘Protect the Human’, how can a leading human rights organisation, dedicated to protecting human beings take no position on when such beings begin to exist?

It is not as if this is a particularly difficult question to answer: it is quite obvious to anyone with even a basic command of embryology or developmental biology. As the embryologist William J. Larsen stated on the first page of his work, Human Embryology, “… [W]e begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilisation to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual”. Moore and Persaud in their The Developing Human: Clinically Orientated Embryology, describe the Zygote, the first form of human being created by fertilisation as “the beginning of each of us as a unique individual”, and O’Rahilly and Müller in Human Embryology & Teratology call it “the beginning of a new human being”.

Given that the human being begins at conception then, this has an obvious and immediate implication for abortion. Since abortion involves the violent destruction of an unborn human being at their earliest stages, it is a violation of their most basic human right – to life. For Amnesty to advocate for removing legal protections for unborn children, decriminalising their being killed in their mother’s wombs, betrays the basic ethical purpose of Amnesty as an organisation. If AI is committed to protecting human beings, then it is grossly inconsistent to ignore the rights of any portion of humanity.

As a consequence, the rest of the logic they employ to justify their position is simply tortured and internally incoherent nonsense. They say that they do not campaign for the ‘legalisation’ of abortion, but only its decriminalisation. Yet this amounts to precisely the same thing. How can something be illegal if the consequence of doing it is not a criminal penalty? They also state that they oppose sex-selective abortion, but that they also take no position on disability-selective abortion. On what basis can they object to the former (indeed, at all), and not to the latter?

Indeed, their official position in theory does not easily marry with their campaigning in practice. They say they only want to “ensure access to abortion services” to women in extreme situations (rape and incest, or when her health or life is in danger), yet their current campaign ‘My Body, My Rights’ in countries like Ireland uses precisely the rhetoric and implicit reductive argument of the abortion lobby itself: that abortion is a matter of bodily autonomy, and thus personal right.

There are various details of Amnesty’s developed case for decriminalised abortion across the world, and we will consider these in future posts. What is certain about their basic position however, is that it is a hopelessly confused one, based on a ludicrous appeal to ignorance, and which profoundly contradicts their ethical basis as a human rights organisation. It would have horrified Peter Benenson, who thankfully never lived to see the organisation he founded so badly violate his own conviction of the equal dignity and rights of all humanity.


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!