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.


  1. Michael,
    Actually I think the Church and Christians have opposed birth control from quite a bit earlier than the Middle Ages, we don’t have much writing from the 1st century, but the Didache is clearly against abortion as are a great many writes of the patristic era. Christians have opposed abortion since well, 33AD or thereabouts.

    In a world where AI was the only NGO working for human rights your position might hold, but I think it isn’t. For if there are organizations doing the same function (supporting human rights) but which don’t support abortion, then the RC position is without reproach from a Christian point of view I’d think.

    Comment by Mark Olson | June 14, 2007

  2. Michael,
    Amnesty international does a lot of good, but the Church has a right to uphold its beliefs. The belief has to do with the concept that abortion is the destruction of innocent human life.

    If we believe that God wills the existence of the conceived person, than we must believe that it cannot be destroyed by human means.

    Comment by Rafael Aviles | June 14, 2007

  3. As I have posted on before, it is sad to see a mixture of anti-birth control and anti-abortion beliefs (why is anti-abortion such a negative term I don’t know, I wear the label with pride). To me, pro-lifers want to convince others that being against abortion is not moral busy-bodying, but tying it up with protesting birth control hurts taht.

    That being said, I do support abortion when the mothers life is actually in danger (not just a generic health risk). I feel that if death must occur, it is not my place to say who. Also, with things like ectopic pregnancy, there is no hope of a successful pregnancy, and both would most likely die.

    Comment by Chance | June 14, 2007

  4. The Didache is against abortion, although it is not clear whether or not it would make the exceptions that the Talmud does based on Ex. 21. I respect the authority of the early church, but not over Scripture.

    The church was opposed to most abortions from early on, but not with the elaborate rationale of the Middle Ages.

    No one is questioning the right of the Catholic Church to uphold its beliefs–I just think those beliefs are wrong when they place fetal life above women’s lives.

    And No, Rafael, it is not logical to suppose that God wills every conception to come to birth. Chance gives the example of ectopic pregnancies where there is no chance of successful birth and the only question is whether one saves the mother’s life or loses both. (The official Catholic position is to oppose intervention even then because “better two deaths than one murder!”) But there are other factors, too: A woman’s body naturally “aborts” as many as 25% of all conceptions, many before even attaching to the uterine wall, so that, in many cases the woman never even knew she was pregnant. Shall we say that a woman’s body murdered these embryos?

    Of course, the further along a pregnancy is, the more it should take to override the presumptive right to life of the gestating fetus.

    Neither AI nor I am arguing any form of extreme “abortion on demand” view, certainly not as a universal human right. But rape and incest and threats to women’s lives are different. And these kind of border line cases should be decided by the pregnant woman in consultation with her family, doctor, and spiritual counselors–not decided by government laws which outlaw abortions without exception. The Catholic Church’s view on this is extreme.

    Chance, you are right that the issue of abortion and birth control should be separate, although for Catholics they never have been. But, increasingly, conservative pro-life Protestants are taking the anti-birth control line, too–and the Augustinian view that pregnancy is the only legitimate purpose of sex. That view reduces women to baby machines and it makes marital childlessness by choice to be a sin. I am horrified by this view. It is misogynist to say the least.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2007

  5. It’s hard to tell from the BBC article what exactly AI’s position is:

    “Amnesty says it does not take any position on whether abortion is right or wrong.

    “But it defended its new position in support of abortion for women when their health is in danger or human rights are violated, especially in cases of rape or incest.’

    In the US at least, the “health exception” is a loophole you can drive a truck through that pretty much makes any serious legal restriction of abortion all but impossible and ends up being a de facto “abortion on demand” position. So, it’s not clear to me at least what AI’s advocacy actually is here.

    Interestingly, Dan Berrigan, himself a longtime AI supporter, agrees with the Vatican’s view here:


    Comment by Lee | June 14, 2007

  6. In cases of ectopic pregnancy, Michael, my understanding of the RC position is that the doctrines of double effect and indirect action can be appealed to. The damaged portion of the fallopian tube is removed in order to save the woman’s life. It necessarily contains the fetus, but the intention is to save the mother’s life, not to take the life of the fetus. So the abortion is indirect rather than direct, and the act morally justifiable, even though two effects ensue, one good and one bad, because the former rather than the latter was intended (even though the only way to achieve the former necessary causes the latter as well).

    Comment by Kerry | June 14, 2007

  7. Kerry, the doctrine of double effect was a standard Catholic appeal, but in recent years doctors appealing to it have been threatened with excommunication by the Vatican.
    Also, it’s an embryo that is removed. If one waited until the embryo had developed into a fetus in the case of ectopic pregnancies, the mother would already be dead.

    Double-effect has also been appealed to for cases in which the pregnancy becomes cancerous, etc.

    I am sorry to find myself in opposition to Dan Berrigan, but I am. AI is no longer the only global human rights advocacy group, but it is still the most effective. Also, it seems to me that other groups, such as the ACLU or the UN Commission on Human Rights, have long pushed for abortion on demand to be considered a human right–but the Vatican goes after AI, instead. I find this absurd.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2007

  8. Michael,
    You write in response to my comment:
    No one is questioning the right of the Catholic Church to uphold its beliefs–I just think those beliefs are wrong when they place fetal life above women’s lives. I’m not sure how you apply this to withdrawal of support from AI, as AI is not the only NGO performing such a role (protecting women and human rights). Don’t you have to demonstrate a unique nature of AI in order to claim that withdrawing support has the meaning you claim. In most places in fact, where AI is in action I’d guess that Catholic organizations and charities are there as well.

    On Exodus 21 … ,uhm, how about, Jeremiah 1:5? More here, also note the early church references (there are more they missed I think).

    It seems to me though that you are correct that “rights” are not the most useful distinction to be made. I’ve attempted using ontology and whether one views “personhood” or the “right to life” is a property which is constitutive of being or an attribute assigned to a being when it passes other tests (stage of development, etc). Historically, from the start I think it might be said that until very recently Christian thought has had a consensus that personhood is constitutive of being.

    Comment by Mark Olson | June 14, 2007

  9. Mark, thanks for writing:

    1)Jer. 1:5 is clearly about God’s foreknowledge (BEFORE I formed you in the womb, etc.) and doesn’t settle anything about fetal personhood, abortion, etc. After all, you aren’t going to claim that personhood begins BEFORE conception are you? It IS fair to say that Jer. 1:5 and a few Psalms show God’s tenderness and care for developing human life and that such is highly valued. But I am not arguing for any kind of low view such as abortion on demand with any of the “it’s just like wart removal” idiotic remarks. I am simply arguing that, in the passage closest to the issue, Ex. 21, we see both fetal life and born life valued, but greater value placed on born life.

    2)The early church references show opposition to the casual abortions of Greco-Roman society–which also included infanticides. I agree with them. They do not, however, amount to the same thing as the developed Catholic view (and, since the early ’80s, the developed conservative Protestant view) which claims that abortion is ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE EQUIVALENT TO MURDER. That extreme position, which allows for no exceptions, no moral tragedies, no ambiguity, and which always subordinates the life and wellbeing of women to fetal life–that is the position I reject.

    3)Yes, there are now many human rights groups, unlike when AI first began. But AI is the largest and most effective. Ordering Catholics to no longer support it is not wise and I hope most Catholics will ignore it in the same way they ignore the ban on birth control.

    4) Personhood is very hard to establish. If we claim it happens at conception, then every time a fertilized ovum fails to attach to the uterine wall and is expelled, a woman’s body has just murdered a person. If we define personhood by means of a list of characteristics, we end up with a position like Peter Singer’s which allows for infanticide since few newborns have all the characteristics typical of most such lists. My own solution vis-a-vis personhood is to talk about fetal life as “potential personhood” from the moment of conception and “developing personhood” throughout gestation. If one must weigh fetus vs. mother, it should take more to override the ban on lifetaking the closer one gets to delivery.

    4)I also think talking about webs of care, the virtues, and creating a society where women and children are highly valued will lead to fewer abortions than focus strictly on human rights–although in other contexts I have strongly championed “rights talk.”

    5)In my view, upward of 95% of all abortions in this nation are morally unjustified. But the range of contexts in that remaining 5% are complex enough that I worry about trying to legislate all borderline cases. I have addressed elsewhere a strategy of “eliminating the causes” for which most women seek abortions. That approach, I believe, could find common ground between non-extremists in both the pro-life and pro-choice camps.

    6)Bottom line is that I feel this Vatican attack on AI is unwise. I hope few other Christian groups follow suit.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | June 14, 2007

  10. Michael,
    Only two comments, for I don’t in principle disagree very strongly anyhow.

    Origen proposed the pre-existence of the soul prior to conception. That notion was pretty roundly (and rightly) spanked.

    I think “virtue-speak”, talking about the wisdom of virtues works on conservative (Straussian?) audiences, but less well on liberal ones. Liberal audiences are more attuned to equality, and libertarians to rights.

    Comment by Mark Olson | June 15, 2007

  11. It is a tragedy anytime single issues like this are used as a litmus test to decide the moral value of any person or organization. In sociology they refer to his phenomenon as “collective social neurosis”. It is when a single issue comes to be so contentious in a culture that it is regarded as symbolic of all moral issues and inflated beyond proportion to the point that the mechanics of dialogue are completely derailed. No one seems capable these days of recognizing that abortion is not an isolated moral incidence defined by the woman’s choice during pregnancy whether or not to go to term. Abortion is a moral process situated within a complex network of moral processes most of which precede and predetermine the character of that choice. Until and unless we address cultural mysogyny, miseducation about birth control, sexual inequality, etc.. etc.. etc… even without considering health risks beyond anyone’s control there is no solution to abortion.

    Yes abortion is a moral wrong, but putting the pressure of moral condemnation on the woman’s decision is an act of extreme neurotic patriarchalism.

    AI is a great organization, right or wrong on this issue, they deserve the support of conscientious Catholics. The Vatican is wrong on this. Flat wrong.

    Comment by Aric Clark | June 15, 2007

  12. […] makes me antsy, to say the least. i want him to be able to come home to a safe, welcoming haven. amnesty international. again, i guess my history plays a large role here – i grew up with stories of the holocaust. […]

    Pingback by international webloggers day: solidarity » change therapy - isabella mori | June 15, 2007

  13. Like you, I don’t to think about the abortion debate in terms of rights, but there are a couple of points to note regarding AI’s specific context of global human rights and allowing abortion in the case of rape or danger to a woman’s health.

    In some cases of genocide, rape with the goal of impregnating women is used as a method of ethnic cleansing. In the minds of the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing, forcing raped women to bear unwanted children is part of a larger plan to brutalize and wipe out a population.

    In many developing nations where abortion is completely outlawed, women face much higher rates of injury and death from illegal abortion than in developed nations with liberal abortion laws. Legal abortions can at least be regulated by governmental or medical authorities to protect women from dangerous underground abortions.

    And in terms of allowing abortion to protect the mother’s health, this exception is often considered a major loophole, but outlawing abortion and not including sucha provision seems to me to be predicated on the assumption that most women who seek a health exception are immoral schemers hoping to take advantage of the system. The legislative goal of excluding health exceptions is to stop these women who are bending the rules, regardless of the actual women who do face health risks. While I recognize that there will always be people who seek out loopholes, I’d much rather err on the side of sick or injured women, particularly given the international context of AI’s work in nations that don’t have the same quality medical care that we enjoy here.

    Comment by kim | June 16, 2007

  14. Thanks for highlighting this issue. I did hear it in passing on the radio the other day. I’m on much the same page as you. I believe abortion is wrong as a starting principle but think that the issue can be complicated. I would like to think that I had the moral fibre to carry to term a child conceived by rape, but who knows? Also Chance has made an excellent point about having to choose between a mother’s life and a baby’s life; I’m not aware if any Christian has ever come out with a theological justification for the idea that the foetus’ life is more valuable than that of the mother?

    I’ve not really thought it out, but there seems something very wrong with equating a woman who takes a painful decision to abort a child to save her own life and a woman who uses abortion for the purposes of birth control.

    Comment by PamBG | June 16, 2007

  15. Cardinal Renato Martino wants all Catholics to boycott amnesty international (ai). He accuses them of an about-turn on abortion. He says they betrayed their mission.

    We strongly oppose his boycott call.
    We urgently ask all Catholics to donate to ai.
    We prefer human rights over dogmas!

    Comment by Dirk Kirchberg | June 21, 2007

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