Dominic Lawson: Amnesty International, the Catholic Church, and some profound questions of life and death

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A newspaper never knows exactly which stories will galvanise its own readers into print. Generally, however, moral conflicts excite much more interest than political ones. Thus The Independent's letters page has been pullulating with opinions following its coverage of the row between the Catholic Church and Amnesty International over the latter's decision to campaign for abortion rights.

Yesterday's edition contained two which repay greater examination. The first was from Neville White, the chairman of the Bromley and Orpington Amnesty Group, who wrote: "At least three local groups in this area have been affected by the decision either through resignation or by putting under severe strain a relationship they have with their founding church. Consultation with members has been at best cursory and without apparent understanding of how divisive the consequences may be; for a movement founded on 'conscience' this is extraordinary."

Mr White's reference to a "founding church" is slightly perplexing – until you recall that the founder of Amnesty International was a Catholic convert, Peter Benenson. However, Mr Thomas Wiggins, of Wokingham, insisted that it is "completely wrong" to accuse Amnesty of "betraying the vision of its founders by supporting abortion". Mr Wiggins argued that "Amnesty was not set up to protect the rights of the unborn, but to prevent human rights abuses."

Well, as the philosopher said, it all depends on what you mean by human. I think the unborn child is human, equipped with everything he or she requires for independent life, save maturity. Others, perhaps including Mr Wiggins, have a different opinion; but he is simply wrong to think that the concept of rights for the unborn is irrelevant to Amnesty's mission.

The organisation has always set great store by international treaties on human rights – and rightly so, since they can be used to shame nations into honouring what they had signed. In 1959, two years before the founding of Amnesty, the Declaration on the Rights of the Child declaimed: "The child, by reason of his or her physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, both before as well as after birth." In 1989, this was recast as the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and signed at the UN General Assembly.

When I called Michael Blakemore, the media director of Amnesty in the UK, he disputed Mr White's accusation that the organisation had not properly consulted its members, and said that the great majority were in sympathy with its decision to campaign for access to abortion. In any event, Amnesty's executive board certainly understood how divisive its decision would be – which makes the whole business even more surprising.

The support of the Catholic Church for Amnesty International has not just been a financial boon, via collections across the globe. The link has also been politically invaluable, as in many countries with repressive regimes the Catholic Church has provided both a haven for dissidents and a social power for rulers to reckon with.

I asked Mr Blakemore if Amnesty had ever before endured such deep divisions over a campaign. He said he couldn't recall anything like it, but that the nearest was when the organisation decided to campaign against the death penalty, including in the United States. There is deep irony here, if you are of a mind to appreciate it: the Catholic Church put its full weight behind Amnesty's campaign against what it sees as legalised murder – and it is for precisely the same reason that it is now so dismayed at the organisation's imminent abortion rights campaign. Amnesty's statute declares "the indivisibility of human rights"; the Catholic Church agrees, and does not think that they can be divided by the umbilical cord.

There is, as always, a wider context. In this case it is that Amnesty is devoting particular energy to campaigns against violence to women. Indeed, in its "Recommendations for the protection and promotion of human rights" the "Fifteen steps to protect women's human rights" comes first – ahead, for example, of the "Twelve-step programme for the prevention of torture". There is merit in Amnesty's concentration on this issue; as it declares in its "fifteen steps", "Women and girl-children face human rights violations solely or primarily because of their sex."

There can be no better illustration of that than the mass sex-selective abortions that have been a feature of Indian life ever since the ante-natal ultrasound machine arrived on the subcontinent. Over the past 20 years it is estimated that up to 10 million Indian female embryos have been aborted, a large proportion at five to six months gestation.

Last weekend, the Sunday Times magazine's Christine Toomey produced an extraordinary account of this practice – it can only be called gendercide – and talked both to participants and opponents. She quoted one woman, with her husband hovering beside her, saying: "We don't feel disturbed by this. The main reason is to keep property in the family. Earlier there was infanticide, now there is foeticide." Then, after the husband had moved away, she told the reporter sadly: "I wish I had a daughter. A woman feels awful without a daughter."

The long-term consequences of this practice – quite aside from the emotional traumas – are already becoming evident: massive disparities between the numbers of young men and women, leading to sex trafficking on an unprecedented scale. Indians are beginning to mount public protests at the cause of this: hundreds of women in the state of Orissa took to the streets after officials found 40 skulls of female foetuses – and some newborns – in an abandoned well.

The Indian government is trying to do its bit: a criminal prosecution was brought against General Electric for supplying ultrasound machines to unauthorised clinics carrying out sex-selection tests. This is just a drop of prevention in a sea of blood, however. Sabu George, a campaigner against sex-selective abortions, told Christine Toomey: "The Nazis' extermination programme was only halted as a result of international intervention. It is high time there was international outrage at what is going on here now."

So I asked Amnesty International to let me know if it could supply me with any material it had produced on this. It could not: still less is it planning to mount a campaign.

As someone who has not attended a meeting of an Amnesty branch for 30 years, I am hardly in a position to lecture an organisation with more than two million members on what it should or should not be doing. As a matter of fact, I don't need to. The facts should speak for themselves.