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!

Right-To-Lifers, Voting, and General Election 2015

by Peter D. Williams

Just before Easter, the Westminster Parliament was dissolved, and now former MPs and other prospective parliamentary candidates are battling in constituencies across the country, as the various parties fight to form, or be part of, the next Government.

The outcome of Elections are crucial to life issues, and so a key question for right-to-lifers has to be how to make their vote count in support of the effort to build a culture that respects and defends human dignity. Despite this, the British right-to-life movement has been, in some ways, a sleeping giant in electoral politics. Whilst there are many people across the country who sympathise with our beliefs and goals in campaigning for protections of the most vulnerable, the wider political consequences of this have scarcely been felt.

This is often because of the British practice of voting for parties in General Elections (putting an ‘X’ next to Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, or others), regardless of the individual candidate that each party has proposed as a potential MP. Such an approach to voting has a fundamental problem: right-to-life matters are not normally matters of party policy. but are instead subject to ‘conscience votes’ in Parliament, in which each member gets to vote freely according to their personal beliefs. Our issues are thus largely independent of party manifestos; it is the consciences of individual MPs that truly matter.

Consequently, supporters of the right to life can exist as MPs in almost every party. Fiona Bruce MP, the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPPLG), is a Conservative. Yet the previous APPPLG chair, Jim Dobbin MP – whom last year, was sadly lost to Parliament and the right-to-life movement, when he died on a trip to Poland – was a staunch Labour MP. There is likewise a party mix within parliamentary right-to-lifers: David Burrowes MP and Jonathans Evans MP are Conservatives, Robert Flello MP and Mary Glindon MP are Labour, and John Pugh MP is a Liberal Democrat. Minority parties such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and UKIP, also have right-to-lifers in their ranks.

In order for the right-to-life movement to really have an effect on British politics therefore, each of us needs to vote not merely on our preferences for individual parties, but on the beliefs of each candidate. That might mean that, for example, someone who normally votes Labour should vote for a right-to-life supporting Conservative, or a staunch Tory should vote for a right-to-life supporting Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate. ‘Candidate, not party’, should be our mantra.

For many people however, an obstacle exists to acting in this way, as finding out what the views are of individual candidates on right-to-life issues is itself a challenge. Thankfully, a new resource exists that should enable such information to become more widely available.

As RTL noted earlier, an independent website has been set up called ‘Where Do They Stand?’. This records the views of the prospective parliamentary candidates in every constituency in the country on abortion and assisted suicide. If any British voter enters their postcode on the home page, it takes them to the records for their constituency. This should be a quick and easy way for people to find out the views of their candidates on crucial and basic issues of human rights, and allow them to cast an informed vote.

The website is a voluntary, public site, that draws on information provided by private individuals based on conversations with or letters they will have received from their local candidates. For many constituencies, no record will be available, as no-one who lives there has yet asked their local candidates what they believe on the life issues. For right-to-lifers then, there is an important job to do.

If you go on the website and find that there is a lack of information available on candidates in your constituency on any issue, then it will allow you to request information from them by sending them an e-mail with a prepared questionnaire. If you do this, the candidates may respond to your e-mail, and you can contact the website with the information given to you, so that the people who run it can add the necessary information on the website profiles for each candidate. This will enable better and more helpful information to be publicly available, and for more informed voting to take place, all of which is in the interests of democracy in general, and the the right-to-life movement in particular.

The one weakness of the website is that its creators have apparently decided to limit its focus to the top three parties in each constituency. This leaves most parties, with smaller minorities in Westminster, entirely absent. Any RTL supporter needing advice on how to contact the candidates of parties left unrepresented on ‘Where Do They Stand?’ on their views regarding life issues, or who would like to know or contribute information on the views of such candidates, should contact info@righttolife.org.uk, and we will act to help as best we can.

Another point to consider is local Hustings (meetings where members of the public can ask candidates questions). The website Engage15 has an online list here that tells you if, when, and where such events may take place. If PPCs won’t answer e-mails or letters, they may at least feel obliged to give some information when publicly questioned, so if you can go along to the Hustings and ask them directly in the meeting, or else privately thereafter if you are not called on to say your question, any answer you gain you could then pass on to RTL!

Further, if the Hustings are organised by a local group, such as Christians Together, you can look online to see if they are taking any questions in advance, as some have been doing. This may help in making sure that a question from you about life issues gets asked to the candidates. A surreptitious recording of their answers on iPhone might also be helpful for later summary. Again, RTL is happy to help in whatever way we can.

All such resources are useful tools, but only if the sleeping giant that is the right-to-life movement in this country properly awakens and uses them. If every right-to-lifer voted according to the beliefs expressed by individual candidates, then mainstream politics would be forced to take life issues more seriously, as it would become clear to politicians that a significant number of people care about them, and vote on the basis of how politicians would vote on the right to life. For longer term progress to be made however, we need to take a further step and become involved in politics directly. By joining the various parties – especially mainstream ones – and working to get candidates selected who believe in the human dignity of every human being, right-to-lifers could make most profound contribution towards a more compassionate and just political culture in our country.

In all these ways, and especially in the next few days through use of this new website resource, work to build a culture of life in British politics. Above all, remember to make an informed vote, basing your choice on the extent the candidates in your constituency make room in their consciences for the dignity and rights of every human being.