Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Vatican to Catholics: No Amnesty!

I was listening to the BBC World News last night when I heard the strangest story in some time.  The Vatican is ordering all Roman Catholics to quit donating to Amnesty International.  What? Doesn’t modern Catholic Social teaching promote and defend universal human rights? Yes, it does. So, why would the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace suddenly oppose Catholic support for the largest and most effective grassroots human rights organization? Because it claims that AI now “promotes abortion” as a human right.

Amnesty spokespeople claim this is a distortion. AI has always drawn its definitions of human rights from international law.  So, on issues where there is no consensus, it is mute. For instance, AI does not take a stand against all war, whatever its members think. It simply insists during wars that all factions uphold the human rights of all, according to international laws of war. Similarly, it takes no stand on the morality of elective abortion, per se.  Much less, does AI “promote abortion.” Rather, AI defends the full humanity of women and their reproductive rights–including that reproduction be voluntary. So, in cases of rape and incest, especially, AI insists that abortion be legal and available to women.

Comments by both sides were colorful.  Vatican spokespeople claimed that abortion is murder so if any exception were made for rape or incest this would treat unborn children as “enemies that one could lawfully destroy.”  AI spokespeople pointed out the Vatican, under the last pope, had also harshly condemned NATO troops during wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia because NATO troops had made “morning after” pills available to the traumatized women of the rape camps.

I’ve said it before and will say it again. I believe that most abortions are immoral.  I also believe that rights language, however useful in other contexts, has not proven all that useful in this debate since it constantly pits the rights of pregnant women against the rights of their gestating fetuses.  But I am on AI’s side.  The Bible nowhere discusses abortion directly.  But in the only passage that is closely connected to the issue (Ex. 21:22-25), while both the developing life and the pregnant woman are valued, the woman’s life is given clear precedence.  The Catholic position is based on the idea that the purpose of sex is ONLY for pregnancy and that all sex which is open to pregnancy is more in line with “natural law” than otherwise. Thus, since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church has condemned artificial birth control as a mortal sin (and makes no distinction between forms of birth control which prevent conception and those which abort fertilized ovae) and has judged rape and incest as “less evil” than birth control, abortion, same-sex encounters, or masturbation–because rape and incest, however evil, allow for the possibility of pregnancy whereas these other actions do not.

This “reasoning” discounts women’s lives. It discounts the threat to women involved in pregnancy (Catholics have condemned married couples for having consensual surgical sterilization even when doctors have said that another pregnancy risks the woman’s life!) and absolutizes the value of gestating life.  Just as millions of Catholics reject the teaching on artificial birth control, I hope they will continue to donate to Amnesty International as it struggles to protect human rights–including the rights and lives of women.


June 14, 2007 Posted by | abortion, church-state separation, economic justice, human rights. | 15 Comments