In its 46 years as a human rights pressure group, Amnesty International has stayed clear of the abortion issue. It was outside its mandate, or so it thought.
The Roman Catholic Church, a long-time supporter and often ally in its various fights against civil rights abuses, agreed.
But this spring, Amnesty decided neutrality on abortion was no longer an option.
And that has meant open conflict between it and the Vatican.
Three years into its worldwide campaign to end violence against women, Amnesty had concluded that rape and enforced impregnation are not the tragic but inevitable outcome of war.
They are, in fact, a tool of war – happening today with harrowing frequency in Darfur – and a grave abuse of women's human rights.
It couldn't continue to turn a blind eye. In 2005, the organization began a two-year consultation on abortion access with its 2.2 million members around the world.
Amnesty, founded in 1961 by a Catholic convert, the late Peter Benenson, has many Catholic (and other religiously affiliated members). The debate was, to put it mildly, a full-throttle one.
"Abortion is the flashpoint in all religions," says Amnesty Canada vice-president Elana Summerscaro. "But the question was, did this kind of abuse against women fit into the category of grave abuse? Yes it did."
Compromises were made, limitations set. But in the end, she says, there was unanimity at last summer summer's general meeting that neutrality should be abandoned.
This April, without fanfare, Amnesty amended its policy on abortion access.
Not, it stressed, to promote it as a universal right – the membership had not gone for that, so it remains silent on abortion's rights and wrongs – but to focus on three selected aspects:
* Decriminalizing abortion in the 97 countries, representing 39 per cent of the world's population, which outlaw it. (It is legal in 54 states.)
* Ensuring that any woman suffering complications from an abortion has the right to medical treatment.
* Lobbying for access to abortion for women pregnant as the result of rape or incest or when their life or health is in danger.
The ink had barely dried on the new policy when it was heatedly denounced by a senior cardinal at the Vatican, who called on Catholics around the world to withdraw their support and donations from the group.
"In deciding to promote abortion rights, Amnesty International has betrayed its mission," Cardinal Renato Martino told the U.S. National Catholic Register in a June 14 interview that was picked up by the Canadian Catholic Register.
When Benenson founded the movement, said Martino, the mission was clear – "to witness to the inalienable rights of all human beings," and that included the unborn.
"Desensitizing the culture to the evil of abortion is part and parcel of the pro-abortion lobby. It is hard to believe that Amnesty has acquiesced to the pressures of this lobby."
If Amnesty persists, Martino said "individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support."
It wasn't an order from the Pope, but Martino, as president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, possesses considerable clout.
Amnesty's deputy secretary-general, Kate Gilmore, angrily lashed back, accusing Martino of misstating the facts.
The movement was not promoting abortion, she said.
"We have the dirt under the nail and the blood and pain of the people that we are responding to. The Catholic Church, through a misrepresented account of our position on selective aspects of abortion, is placing in peril work on human rights."
Gilmore said Amnesty defends the right of the Church to address moral beliefs, but "our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God. It means that sometimes the secular framework of human rights that Amnesty upholds will converge neatly with the standpoint of certain faith-based communities; sometimes it will not."
Moreover, part of the mission of a human rights movement is to "create an environment in which people can make moral choices as individuals."
But sometimes there are costs. The 67,000-member Amnesty Canada has lost about 200 supporters, says Cheryl Hotchkiss, a women's rights campaigner at its Ottawa office.
"They say they can't support it in conscience. But Amnesty is not out campaigning for pro-life groups. We've actually received donations from about 25 Catholics because we are doing this."
Earlier this month, the Conference of Catholic Bishops blasted Amnesty's abandonment of neutrality and called for the policy to be reversed next month at this year's general meeting in Mexico.
One Australian bishop, the principal of a Catholic school, has threatened to close down the students' Amnesty Club.
The Canadian Conference of Bishops, however, has chosen a different course.
It has not commented on the policy switch; at least, not yet.
In fact, several bishops met with Amnesty staff in June to discuss "where we've had common ground in the past," says Canadian Amnesty president Gina Hill.
No directive has come down calling for a withdrawal of support, says Neil McCarthy, spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.
But he adds that Amnesty "can't be surprised" at the Church's reaction to the policy change.
"Life is sacred, and though there certainly are tragic circumstances in the world, abortion is abortion – you can't be selective in the circumstances. Donors will have to make the decision."
It's still too soon to tell if the call for a Catholic boycott will hurt Amnesty's overall support base. Globally, it may gain more than it loses, says Suzi Clark at the executive committee office in London.
"From our feedback, we understand there are a number of countries where more people have joined because of our support for sexual and reproductive rights, including selected aspects of abortion, than have left in opposition."
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