- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

ATHENS — Famed for its human rights work, Amnesty International is under siege from religious groups outraged by a proposal that would expand Amnesty’s mandate to include supporting access to abortion in cases such as sexual violence.

A small but growing band of pro-life campaigners and Roman Catholic clerics — including some who have backed Amnesty’s activities in the past — say the Nobel Prize-winning group is drifting away from its principles of unbiased advocacy.

They have threatened to pull members and donations and have called for a flood of protest letters to Amnesty offices — the same strategy the rights group uses to pressure for the release of political prisoners and others.

Amnesty officials note that any decision is still more than a year away and defend their right to debate abortion and birth control within the context of women’s rights.

Top Amnesty officials were not available for interviews, but the group released a statement from its London headquarters saying it “does not make policy according to the ebbs and flows of external pressure.”

It’s not clear how deeply the pro-life factions could punish Amnesty. But religious groups have long been a pillar of the organization, which was founded in 1961 by a Catholic lawyer in Britain and has more than 1.8 million members and many other supporters worldwide. Its work to free people held by repressive regimes led to Amnesty’s winning the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.

“This is completely inconsistent with what Amnesty has been about,” said John-Henry Westen, a board member of the Campaign Life Coalition, a Toronto-based group representing about 110,000 families. “We consider this an attack on the rights of the unborn.”

Mr. Westen said some members — including several “significant” financial contributors to Amnesty — have stopped supporting the group.

“This is forcing people to make a choice,” he said.

Amnesty’s regional offices are being asked to study whether to end the group’s official “neutral” stance on abortion. In its place, the group could declare access to abortion a human right in specific cases, including rape and life-threatening pregnancy complications. The proposals — growing out of Amnesty’s campaign to stop violence against women — also include whether to support legal access to contraception.

A final decision could come at Amnesty’s next international gathering — in Mexico in August 2007. But Amnesty said, “Much depends on the outcomes” of the current debates in various countries. If there’s agreement that the pro-choice proposal has support, it could either be adopted by consensus or put to a formal vote. Otherwise, it could be dropped or sent back for more discussions.

“We are deeply disappointed by the path taken by Amnesty. For those of us who champion real human rights, these trends make us a bit queasy,” said Austin Ruse, the Washington-based president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a nonprofit research group that has called its 100,000 members to mobilize against the proposal.

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