Amnesty International’s Blind Spot
by Julia Smucker
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International is well known for its advocacy on behalf of vulnerable and marginalized people around the world. Amnesty’s goal is a worthy one, and many of its efforts are to be commended. The organization’s laudable work in defense of human rights makes it all the more unfortunate that in recent years it seems to have fallen into an all-too-frequent dichotomy in today’s political climate, one that pits advocacy for a particular category of vulnerable human beings – namely, the preborn – against many others, and perhaps especially women.
In 2015, they launched a petition calling for what they termed a “life-saving abortion,” in response to a situation that was harrowing enough (which I addressed here) even without them suggesting that the mother’s life had been in danger (falsely, as it turned out). Now they’ve issued a similarly reflexive response to a proposed change to abortion laws in Poland. The petition is briefly worded and designed to evoke automatic outrage, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that there are two major flaws in its assumptions.
First, the proposed bill that Amnesty is responding to is one that would remove the “fetal impairment” grounds for abortion as currently allowed under Polish law. It’s unclear how removing these grounds would pose a risk to women’s health as the petition claims. Furthermore, such a leap may easily distract from the implicit prejudice in using impairment as a determining factor in deciding whether someone’s life will have value. The implications, especially in the context of human rights, should be particularly concerning for disability rights advocates.
Second, there’s an implication that legal restrictions of abortion necessarily entail criminal sentences for women who obtain them. Such an approach in fact garners little support, including among pro-life advocates. CL board member Rachel MacNair addressed the question of who should be targeted by laws restricting abortion in a previous post, noting that the moral responsibility for abortion, as with other kinds of large-scale state-sponsored violence such as capital punishment and war, is shared by many.
Aimee Murphy, executive director of member group Rehumanize International, made the case in an October 2017 video for a restorative justice approach to abortion laws, explaining why she favors legal protection for preborn human lives and why this does not mean “punishing women who have abortions”:
I think that our current model of justice, based on retribution and punishment models that see justice as a balance of harms, is actually contrary to human dignity…. If we seek to build a truly human-centered model of justice, a truly personalist model of justice, a truly pro-life model of justice, then our justice system should be restorative. Our justice system should seek to achieve three ends: firstly, to respect the inherent dignity of both the offended and the offender; secondly, to acknowledge the harm done; and thirdly, to make reparation for the harm done. We acknowledge that violence creates a rift between the offender and the offended, between the offender and the community. We should not seek to further disintegrate our human community through the continued harms against the offender for their violence, like the death penalty or incarceration or an eye for an eye. We should seek instead the reintegration of the offender to the community, to make our community as whole as is possible, to respect the dignity of all.
I support restorative justice models across the board, especially because our system of justice has currently led to inhumane and often racist structures of mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes. But I support restorative justice most particularly when faced with the case of abortion. As someone who was told at 16 that if I didn’t get an abortion my rapist would kill me, I understand that abortion coercion is very real on personal, familial, economic and societal levels. Those who have abortions are very rarely the sole guilty party.
When Amnesty calls for “a feminist response, working to … save women rather than harm them,” consistent-lifers can easily agree with this goal on the face of it, precisely because we believe that abortion harms women. To save women and their children (before and after birth) means seeking to repair and prevent harm, to restore wholeness and to respect human dignity, both through outside-the-box approaches to the justice system and by going well beyond laws to support and empower nonviolent choices whatever the circumstance.
Editor’s Note: Back in 2007, the Consistent Life Network ran a petition drive and presented petitions at an Amnesty International conference in hopes of dissuading the leadership from moving away from abortion neutrality and adopting a new stance that abortion is a “human right.” When Rachel MacNair tried to pass out leaflets to conference-goers, she was forbidden to, and when she asked point-blank if she was being censored, the answer was a point-blank “yes.” The previous fall Amnesty had asked the membership to vote on this new stance, but the results of the vote were never released. At the 2007 conference it became clear that the stance had nevertheless already been adopted by the leadership.
Click here for the full story and a list of abortion-neutral human rights organizations as alternatives for donations.
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