Despite an outcry from Roman Catholic and conservative leaders worldwide, Amnesty International seems likely to affirm a new policy supporting greater access to abortion when its top decision-making body meets next month.
Critics, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have called on Amnesty's International Council to repudiate the policy during its biennial meeting starting Aug. 11 in Mexico.
``I think it's improbable,'' said Kate Gilmore, the human rights organization's deputy secretary general. If there was any vote at all on the policy, she suggested, it would likely be a show of strong support from the leaders of its more than 70 national chapters who will be gathering in Mexico.
The chapters and Amnesty's head office in London wrestled with the new policy for more than two years before it was adopted in April by the nine-member International Executive Committee.
The policy does not advocate abortion on demand or declare it a human right, but it supports access to abortions in cases of rape, incest, violence or when pregnancy jeopardizes a mother's life or health. It also opposes criminal sanctions for those who undergo or perform abortions.
Critics contend that Amnesty has betrayed its principles by abandoning a previously neutral stance on abortion.
The policy ``undermines Amnesty's long-standing moral credibility, diverts its mission, divides its own members ... and jeopardizes Amnesty's support by people in many nations, cultures and religions,'' Bishop William Skylstad, president of U.S. Catholic bishops' conference, said earlier this month.
In June, a Vatican official, Cardinal Renato Martino, said Catholics should no longer contribute to Amnesty because of the policy.
Amnesty was founded in 1961 by a Catholic layman, Peter Benenson, and has long enjoyed the support of many Catholic organizations and individuals in its campaigns against torture, capital punishment and political repression.
Amnesty's leaders knew that some of these supporters would be alienated by the new abortion stance, which is part of a broader policy defending women's sexual and reproductive rights.
``Sometimes friends become foes,'' Gilmore said in a telephone interview from London. ``We
searched our hearts and minds and stayed true to human rights and were not swayed by any other issue. ... We knew some people would find our position unacceptable.''
Gilmore said the overwhelming majority of Amnesty's chapters eventually voted in favor of the policy, although debate was often difficult.
She said Amnesty members in Ireland, where abortion is outlawed, had particularly wrenching deliberations, and she predicted there would be no imminent Amnesty-led campaign to overturn the Irish abortion ban.
In contrast to Ireland, Gilmore said Amnesty activists in other countries with tough abortion restrictions, such as Poland and certain Latin American countries, embraced the policy wholeheartedly.
Amnesty's large U.S. chapter was among the many that strongly endorsed the new policy, although spokeswoman Suzanne Trimel said some members depicted it as the most difficult issue they had dealt with.
The chapter has more than 400,000 members; Trimel said a ``handful'' - probably less than 200 - had quit in protest over the policy.
As to the policy's practical impact, Gilmore indicated it would be invoked primarily in situations where women are victimiudan, where many women have been raped in the course of a four-year ethnic conflict between rebels and a pro-government militia.
``We would argue that a woman has a right to make her own decision (about abortion) without any further fear or coercion if pregnancy is a result of rape,'' Gilmore said.
She said Amnesty might also take action in regard to Nigeria, where women seeking abortions can face severe punishment, and in Latin American countries where even women with life-threatening medical problems can be denied abortions.
``We have felt very keenly how passionately people feel on both sides of this debate,'' Gilmore said. ``But we're here to do what's right, whether it's unpopular or otherwise.''
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