Thursday, August 23, 2007

A leading British bishop has resigned his membership in Amnesty International and an Australian Jesuit college said it will no longer work with the leading human rights group after the organization last week officially endorsed a new policy supporting a woman’s right to an abortion in certain cases.

More defections could follow in the aftermath of the policy shift, officially adopted by delegates from around the world at Amnesty International’s biennial meeting that concluded Friday in Mexico City.

Amnesty International delegates, backing an executive board decision announced this spring, said the organization would “support the decriminalization of abortion, to ensure women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion and to defend women’s access to abortion … when their health or human rights are in danger.”

Officials of the London-based group, which was founded to aid political prisoners of conscience, defend the change as part of a larger global drive against violence, discrimination and abuse targeting women, including rape as a “weapon of war” in conflicts such as the one in the western Sudan region of Darfur.

“There are many human rights issues involved in organized sexual violence targeting women,” said A. Widney Brown, Amnesty’s senior director for international legal issues, in a telephone interview from New York yesterday.

She said the new policy would not detract from Amnesty’s focus on political repression, but added, “We can’t as an organization look only at human rights issues that implicate men.”

But the decision has been sharply criticized by the Vatican and pro-life groups. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican and one of the Hill’s leading voices on human rights, told the Catholic News Service that a human rights group that favored legalizing abortion is “the ultimate oxymoron.”

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, issued a statement in June calling on Catholic organizations and individuals to stop providing financial support for Amnesty International because of the abortion policy.

“If, in fact, Amnesty International persists in this course of actions, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support, because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, AI has betrayed its mission,” the cardinal said.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the Office of International Peace and Justice at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group was “deeply disappointed” by the Amnesty International vote. The bishops conference is not a member of the human rights group, but he said Catholic organizations and individual Catholics will be forced to reconsider their support for Amnesty International.

Amnesty International and the church have been leading voices in the international campaign against the death penalty.

“We can work with groups and people with whom we do not agree with on every issue on common interests,” Mr. Colecchi said. “But it’s a different moral issue for people of conscience to contribute directly to an organization whose work now will include the decriminalization of abortion.”

The Rt. Rev. Michael Evans, bishop of England’s East Anglia Diocese, on Monday became the first high-ranking Catholic figure to quit Amnesty International, which he joined 31 years ago.

“Among all human rights, the right to life is fundamental, and this decision will almost certainly divide Amnesty’s membership and thereby undermine its vital work,” the bishop told the London Times newspapers.

St. Aloysius College in Sydney, Australia, a Jesuit school, also resigned its membership in the human rights group Tuesday, citing the abortion policy, and urged other Australian Catholic schools not to cooperate or help raise funds for the organization.

The abortion policy has proven controversial within Amnesty International, with some activists worried that the shift will make the human rights group’s work harder not only with Catholic groups, but in conservative parts of Latin America, Asia and the Muslim world.

The Irish chapter of Amnesty International announced over the weekend that it would not promote the group’s new abortion policy, citing Irish laws against abortion.

But Gabriele Eminente, a top official from Amnesty’s Italian chapter, said he did not expect to lose members because of the abortion vote, despite the Vatican’s strong opposition.

Amnesty’s Miss Brown said the Mexico vote in favor of the new policy was overwhelming, although no final vote was taken. She said e-mail to the organization since the vote had also been mostly favorable to the change.

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