Amnesty’s International Travesty Of Maternal Life & Health (‘Amnesty’s Travesty Of Human Rights’, Part III)

by Peter D. Williams

As we have seen, Amnesty International (AI) is able to campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion worldwide because it ignores the humanity and right to life of unborn children. This deliberate ‘ignore-ance’ of an entire swathe of the human family allows them to find access to abortion, at least in certain circumstances, a matter of human right. By deleting the unborn from the equation, they find this centrally in two rights: the right to health, and ironically enough, the right to life.

As previously noted, Amnesty claims that “restrictive abortion laws and policies” deny women “access to safe abortion services where continued pregnancy threatens their lives or health”. Since then, to “promote non-discrimination and the right to health are fundamental areas of AI’s mission”, they believe decriminalising abortion must also be part of their advocacy.

Yet even considered on their own, these arguments simply do not fit with reality, nor do they lead to a necessity to decriminalise the killing of unborn children. Neither medical reality, nor specific examples that Amnesty and abortion lobbyists have brought up work to justify their case. Abortion, if by that we mean direct feticide (the destruction of an unborn child in her mother’s womb) is never necessary to save a mother’s life or safeguard her health. No condition can be alleviated by attacking and killing an unborn baby. It may, however, be necessary to end a pregnancy for some medical reason, and sometimes it can also be necessary to perform actions that might have the side-effect of harming the unborn child. If a woman experiences an ectopic pregnancy, for example, the pregnancy will kill her if allowed to continue. Or, if a pregnant woman has cancer, chemotherapy that risks killing the unborn baby might be necessary to save her life.

Yet these examples do not constitute abortion. Abortion involves the direct intention to kill the unborn child, and this need not be true of treatments that end pregnancy. This is because of a medical ethical principle called ‘Double Effect’. If a pregnant woman goes through, say, chemotherapy to treat cancer, the intention is not to kill her child, but to destroy a tumour. If her unborn child dies, then this is a foreseen but unintended side-effect of the treatment, and thus not an abortion. If an ectopic pregnancy occurs, then a ‘salpingectomy’ (the removal of the fallopian tube where the pregnancy is taking place) can be affected. Since this involves treating the pathologised organ, and not intentionally killing the gestating baby, again the death of the unborn child is a foreseen but unintended side-effect of the procedure. It also then, is not an abortion. Consequently, neither chemotherapy for pregnant women, nor salpingectomy for ectopic pregnancy, are banned in countries that legally protect unborn children.

The only controversial aspect of this issue comes when a child needs to be removed from the womb. After viability (officially, 24 weeks), when the child can survive outside her mother’s womb, this is no problem. Before that point, however, removing the child from the environment they need to live can indeed be seen as equivalent to an abortion. Bioethicists argue over this point, but in many countries such as Chile and Ireland, pre-viable induction can take place to save the life of the mother.

What may often happen is that doctors wait until the child reaches viability, and then ethically end the pregnancy by removing the baby through caesarean section. This is seems to be what happened with a cause célèbre that Amnesty and the international abortion lobby took up in 2013. A young El Salvadoran woman had signified for the sake of anonymity as ‘Beatriz’, presented for an abortion because she was suffering from lupus (a chronic immune system disorder) aggravated by kidney failure, and thus had grave health concerns. It was argued that her life was put at risk from the pregnancy, and that the longer the pregnancy went on, the less likely doctors would be able to treat her.

What added to the tragedy of this situation was that her child was anencephalic (lacking a major part of the brain, skull, and scalp), and thus when born would only live for a few hours. Her child at the time was also below the twenty-four week point of viability, when the baby can – all other things being equal – survive outside the womb.

Her case was taken to the Supreme Court of El Salvador, which refused to authorise an abortion. This led to a campaign from Amnesty and abortion lobby groups for her to be granted feticide as ‘treatment’. Permission was given, however, by the Ministry of Health when Beatriz was 26 weeks pregnant for a caesarean section, when her child could be incubated and given fluids. As expected, Beatriz’s baby daughter died five hours after the procedure, but Beatriz was able to recover and later left the hospital.

Despite its exploitation by the international abortion lobby, and whilst it involved an ethically difficult and very sad situation, this case did not prove the necessity of legalised abortion. The sheer fact that Beatriz survived thanks to an ethically correct and legally sanctioned series of medical decisions proved both the legal and medical systems in El Salvador capable of balancing correctly the welfare of women and the right to life of their unborn children.

There is no need therefore to decriminalise abortion to save the lives, or health, of pregnant women. Much of the worst cases and reasons given by Amnesty for decriminalising abortion do not function at all as justifications for violating the dignity and rights of the child in the womb.

No human rights argument for abortion then on the grounds of life or health is ultimately workable or consistent. You simply cannot uphold the authentic rights of one person by denying those of another. Such arguments are also, however, moot, as they do not properly reflect or deal with the reality of situations to which they refer.

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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 www.shamnesty.org and sign the petition!

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.

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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 www.shamnesty.org and sign the petition!

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.

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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 www.shamnesty.org and sign the petition!

Dr. Mosley & Mr. Nye: Why ‘Smart’ Science Supports Unborn Humanity

by Peter D. Williams

Bill Nye is a popular science broadcaster and comedian who made a popular Disney children’s science show ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ for ‘PBS’ (‘Public Broadcasting Service’, the US version of the BBC) in the mid 90s. He isn’t well known this side of the Pond, but for many Americans he carries the same credibility on matters of science as Johnny Ball, David Attenborough, or Brian Cox, do in the UK. Ball is perhaps the best analogy, given his appearance on children’s telly about the same time period, and the fondness which many feel for him.

This is the reason why, when Nye recently made a controversial video for the website ‘Big Think’, it went viral. Called ‘Can We Stop Telling Women What to Do With Their Bodies?’, the blurb for the video summarises his thesis: “anti-abortion legislation is derived from outdated beliefs that predate smart science by fifty centuries”. Given that this came from Nye, the framing for his pro-abortion conclusion as the informed scientific perspective granted it powerful credibility. Consequently, a slew of articles on popular magazine sites spread news of the video titled with comments like ‘Bill Nye Debunks Anti-Abortion Logic With Science’‘Bill Nye debunks anti-abortionist logic with science’, and ‘Bill Nye Brings Down Hammer of Science on Abortion Opponents’.

What then was this pure ‘science’ that has so utterly ‘debunked’ and ‘crushed’ right-to-life laws and arguments? Well, let’s take a look:

The basis that Nye gives for his assertion is at the very beginning of the video. Nye claims:

“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilised than become humans. Eggs get fertilised – and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova – a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say, if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilised it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilised egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilised an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you? It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally – or apparently literally – don’t know what you’re talking about”.

Strongly-put stuff. Is it right, though? Well, to put it mildly: no, not in the slightest. In fact, insofar as we can work out any logical argument from what Nye says, it is in fact so utterly, utterly incorrect that it constitutes on his part an astonishing degree of biological illiteracy, and an exemplary form of embryological ignorance.

Let’s start with the basic misunderstanding of the beginning of human life that is peppered throughout his comments: the idea that “eggs” become “fertilised” but do not “become humans”. This appears to be, after all, the basis for his implication: that a “fertilised egg” does not have the “same rights as an individual”.

Well, as a matter of fact, there is no such thing properly speaking as a ‘fertilised egg’. When an egg becomes fertilised by a sperm at conception, the sperm and the egg effectively cease to exist. They have merged into a new organism entirely: the zygote, which is the beginning of a new human being. Unborn children do not “become” human beings. They are human beings from their conception.

You needn’t take my word on it to see this fact, as it’s repeated across a range of embryological and medical textbooks by experts in these fields. Take Dr. William J. Larsen, an academic whose research was at the forefront of cell developmental and reproductive biology, and who stated in his book Human Embryology(1):

“… [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.”

Indeed, in describing the ‘developing human’ in their text of the same name(2), Dr. Keith L. Moore and Dr. T.V.N. Persaud, are even more explicit when they state:

Human development begins at fertilisation when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell – a zygote. This highly specialised, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

Similarly, Dr. Ronan R. O’Rahilly and Dr. Fabiola Müller, in their Human Embryology and Teratology(3), characterise the newly created Zygote thus:

“Zygote: This cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo). The expression fertilised ovum refers to a secondary oocyte that is impregnated by a sperm; when fertilisation is complete, the oocyte becomes a zygote.”

What no less than five experts in embryology tell us then, is that when a female egg is fertilised by a male sperm, there is no longer an ovum but a newly conceived human being. This reality – that a new human being has come into existence – is the fundamental basis for the right-to-life movement’s contention that unborn children should be protected from abortion: all human beings are equal, and so all human beings have the same basic human rights. Contrary to Nye’s statements then, the “fertilised egg” does not “become a human”. He or she is an individual human being, from their conception onwards, and should have their human right to life respected.

Having dealt with his core assumption then, what should we make of Nye’s counter-arguments to this idea? He seems to have three:

  • Many eggs are fertilised (i.e. unborn are conceived) than survive the reproductive process.
  • They also ‘need’ to attach to the uterine wall (i.e. achieve implantation).
  • If unborn children are equal to adults, then this would mean that we must assert that every father and mother who have had a conceived child miscarry or fail to implant has “failed” us and should be sued or imprisoned.

The first two of these statements are irrelevant biological claims. It isn’t entirely clear, for example, why Nye mentions that the conceived child ‘needs’ to attach to the uterine wall. What this identifies is ‘implantation’, when the embryonic human begins to be sustained by her mother as a blastocyst when she embeds into the endometrium of the uterus. For what, however, does Nye think implantation is ‘needed’?

Some U.S. abortion lobbyists have used the American Medical Association marking of implantation as the beginning of pregnancy as a means of equivocating over when a human life begins, and it may be that Nye is doing the same. Yet this is fallacious: implantation is not the beginning of human existence – it is the beginning of gestation. As we have seen, every human being began to exist at their conception, not when they began to be sustained and gestated by their mother.

Perhaps the mention of implantation was simply a continuation of his first point: that many conceived children fail to survive. In any case, accepting for the sake of argument that many children are conceived but fail to survive (some estimates have gone from one third to one half of conceived children in total), this tells us absolutely nothing about abortion.

After all, abortion is a deliberate act of killing. Miscarriage or failure to implant is an accident of nature. The former is a moral crime, the latter is a natural tragedy. We cannot often control whether nature ends the lives of fellow human beings, but we can control whether we do so. That many unborn lives end before they get to the point of gestation, then, is about as relevant to the humanity of the unborn child as high infant mortality rates in past centuries were to the humanity of new-born babies. I.e. Not at all.

For the same reason, for Nye to, with gross insensitivity, suggest that because parents suffer the natural tragedy of miscarriage or failure to implant, that right-to-lifers think that they must be penalised is so obvious a non sequitur that it boggles the mind as to how he could make such a plainly erroneous assertion. We punish people for intentionally wicked actions, not for passively experienced accidents. A mother and a father whose child has sadly died deserve our sympathy, and have in no way ‘failed’ or warranted condemnation.

And there we have it. Nye’s arguments, such as they are, are riddled with biologically false assumptions about the nature of the newly conceived unborn child, and are so hopelessly illogical and ill-thought out that what little accurate facts he does know are completely misapplied and ill-considered. In the light of this, everything else he says in the video, even if it were not (as it is) flippant nonsense, is utterly irrelevant.

Indeed, since these comments by Mr. Nye, supposedly a man who spends his life educating people about scientific truth, are so astonishingly misinformed and irrational, they leave his eventual conclusion without any intelligent basis. You can only think ‘Can we stop telling women what to do with their bodies?’ is a meaningful question regarding abortion if you ignore the fact that abortion involves a woman doing (or rather allowing someone else to do) something to someone else’s body – the body of her unborn child. Given this, for a channel that is meant to distil significant and big ideas into relevant and applicable knowledge, its title alone marks Big Think’s video out as an explicitly biased and shallow presentation.

In contrast to Nye’s embarrassing ignorance and irrationality, the three-part BBC series Countdown To Life: The Extraordinary Making Of You on the BBC, hosted by Dr. Michael Mosley, has in the last few weeks been showing the amazing development of the unborn child. Unlike Mr. Nye, who simply has a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Dr. Mosley is a trained Doctor and has years of experience making programmes about biology and medicine. It is telling then, that from the first episode, he marks the beginning and follows the development of the individual human being from the point of conception. (Not implantation, or any later point.)

I am not claiming Dr. Mosley as a member of the right-to-life movement. I have no idea what his politics are when it comes to abortion or embryo-destructive research and medical practice. What is clear however, from the presentation he gives, as from the second episode of the 1998 BBC documentary The Human Body by Lord Winston (with whom Dr. Mosley had produced three other series), is that when the sperm from our father fertilised the ovum of our mother, we each of us began to exist as new individuals. This, as I have pointed out, is the foundational reality on the basis of which all right-to-life campaigning and advocacy takes place. Reinforcing this right understanding of unborn humanity, Countdown To Life fascinatingly accounts how so much of what happens to us in the womb can affect us in profound ways: from our skin colour, to our sex and sexual identity, to even how the organs in our body are arranged.

Dr. Mosley’s documentary is an excellent and informed illustration of the humanity of unborn children, and much recommended whilst it is still available to licence fee payers on BBC iPlayer. The first episode has just over a week until it expires, but can be downloaded for a period longer than that. Hopefully it will educate many people as to the reality of human origins, and particularly those abortion lobby supporters who, like Mr. Nye, literally – or apparently literally – don’t know what they’re talking about.

Peter D. Williams is Executive Officer at Right To Life.

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(1) William J. Larsen, Human Embryology, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone), pg. 1 (emphases added).

(2) Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th Ed. (New York: Saunders, 2003), p. 16, (emphases added).

(3) Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd. ed., (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), pg. 8 (emphasis added).