Catholic schools bar Amnesty for abortions policy

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The Independent Online

Controversy surrounding Amnesty International's new policy of supporting abortion in certain circumstances has brought it into conflict with Catholic schools in Northern Ireland.

Two leading Belfast grammar schools which had highly active Amnesty youth groups have shut them down in protest at the stance of the human rights organisation. It is the latest sign that the Catholic church and Amnesty, while agreeing on a wide range of human rights problems, are at odds on the contentious abortion issue. Amnesty now backs terminations in some circumstances, replacing its previous policy of neutrality.

The group will campaign for women to have access to abortion in cases such as rape or incest, or where pregnancy puts a mother's life or her health at grave risk. It said its position had been informed by its work in areas such as Darfur, "where rape is used systematically as a weapon of war".

Abortion is very much a rarity in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, but thousands of women and girls travel to Britain each year for terminations. The Catholic church opposes abortion for any reason.

Amnesty had clubs in about 20 Northern Ireland schools but the staunchly Catholic Rathmore Grammar and Our Lady and St Patrick's College have both severed their links with the group. The Irish Catholic church has also said it finds Amnesty's policy unacceptable and several clerics have left the group in protest.

The auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor, Donal McKeown, said: "All we are saying here is that it seemed inappropriate in those circumstances for Catholic schools to be promoting the organisation."

Amnesty has written to all schools in the province, asking them to clarify their positions. But one Amnesty member with a child at Our Lady and St Patrick's said she was "shocked and disappointed" by the decision to close its Amnesty club. The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, added: "Amnesty's activities have been exemplary and inspirational and this is sending out a very bad message, demonising them. It undermines all the other tremendous work that Amnesty does."

Sister Ursula Canavan, the headteacher of Rathmore Grammar, was unrepentant. She said: "We had a very vibrant Amnesty group and I appreciate very much what Amnesty do. But, in conscience, I could not continue as a school promoting life and, at the same time, encourage the pupils to be involved in Amnesty."

Orla Murphy, the 17-year-old head girl at Rathmore, said she agreed with Sister Ursula. Last year, as a leading Amnesty club member, she took part in activities such as a campaign calling for the closure of the US military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She hopes to pursue a career in international rights law. She said: "I support Amnesty on prisoners of conscience and other issues but I just cannot agree with this. I think it is quite hypocritical to say they are protecting human rights when everyone has the human right to life. I'm personally against abortion in all cases. Human life is sacred."

Rathmore's head boy Patrick Gallagher, also 17, added: "Last year, we ran campaigns to raise awareness and money for Amnesty but this totally conflicts with the Catholic ethos we have here. They are a wonderful organisation doing very worthwhile work. I'm disappointed that we can't be associated with them any more. I feel very strongly about abortion. I've been brought up to believe that it is wrong."

The issue will be discussed by Irish bishops next month. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty's programme director for Northern Ireland, said he hoped the situation could be resolved.