Amnesty and abortion

There was a lot in the press about Amnesty International’s revision of its policy on abortion in 2007. In The Age 28 May 07, for example, Barney Zwartz says that “Amnesty in hot water on abortion”, and on 29 May 07, Larissa Dubecki commented that this is a “Battle Amnesty need not have brought on itself”.

As a new member of Amnesty, I thought it would be helpful to find out what Amnesty said in its own words. Here, without comment, is the information the Australian office sent in reply to my inquiry.

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your phone call to Amnesty International Australia.

I am able to clarify that Amnesty International (AI) has adopted a policy on selected aspects of abortion. This policy is driven by the desire to address the consequences of widespread sexual violence targeting women and girls, the failure of virtually all governments to prevent sexual violence or to provide an adequate remedy for many victims/survivors of sexual violence including unwanted pregnancy, as well as the serious threats that pregnancy can pose to a woman’s life and health.

AI is committed to addressing human rights violations that create women’s unequal status, making it impossible for many women to control the terms and conditions of their sexual interactions with men. Discrimination against women can also result in women’s lack of access to information and reproductive health services. Therefore, AI calls on governments to provide women and men with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services. This may require governments to reform or repeal certain laws and policies which arbitrarily impede access to such information and services.

AI’s policy also calls on all governments to repeal laws under which women are or can be charged and imprisoned for seeking or having an abortion. Government regulation of access to abortion must be reasonable, for example by ensuring practitioners are licensed, providing protection against medical malpractice, and setting gestational limits on abortion. However, criminal laws that single out medical professionals for providing information about or carrying out abortions within the confines of these reasonable limitations must also be repealed.

All women with complications from abortion must have access to appropriate medical services regardless of whether they obtained the abortion legally or illegally under national law. Governments must ensure that any woman, who has become pregnant as a result of sexual violence, including incest, has access to safe and legal abortion services. When a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life or a grave risk to her health, governments must ensure she has access to safe, legal abortion services.

AI takes no position on whether a woman should have an abortion under any of these circumstances but instead seeks to ensure that abortion services are safe and accessible to these women to prevent grave violations that could result if women were denied this option. AI has long promoted the rights of women and men to make informed choices about sex and reproduction free from coercion, discrimination and violence. AI also has long opposed coercive population control measures such as forced sterilization and forced abortion. AI’s policy on selected aspects of abortion, which is consistent with these other policy positions, is rooted in an analysis of government obligations as defined under international human rights law.

As a democratic, membership-based organisation AI has a tradition of reaching major policy decisions after thorough internal discussion and debate with the membership. The issue of abortion has been no exception. This policy is representative of extensive consultation with AI members across the world, including in Australia.

It is important to remember that one can remain an active member or ally of Amnesty International and continue to collaborate on specific human rights issues or campaigns without having to change one’s moral standpoint, perceptions or views on issues such as abortion. It is in this spirit that we are calling on all our members and supporters to work with us to end violence against women, which often lies at the root of many unwanted pregnancies.

Thank you again for taking the time to present your views to us. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact us.

Yours sincerely,

Supporter Liaison Officer
Amnesty International Australia