What would Amnesty’s Catholic founder think of AI now?

I noted an item of some significance in CFNews for 12th August: a statement from the news agency C-Fam, by reporter Elizabeth Charnowski, about Amnesty International (AI). As readers will doubtless know, AI is “a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights with over 3 million members and supporters around the world”. Its object is “to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated”.

Readers might also recall that in 2007 AI appeared to change its earlier policy so as to endorse a pro-choice stance on abortion. This lost it much support from Catholics and others, me included. At that time I wrote a letter of protest to the organisation and received a tart reply about “women’s rights”. Our concerns were justified, however; as Elizabeth Charnowski now reports: “Amnesty International, a human rights organisation that used to be abortion neutral, is now using the problem of maternal mortality to advocate for abortion. In a new report, ostensibly on medical care for maternal health, Amnesty calls on governments to repeal abortion laws and conscience protection for medical workers who may object. They also call for public health systems to train and equip health care providers to perform abortions.”

She adds that Amnesty International has called for “small steps towards the legalisation of abortion and has submitted a report to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), calling for its legalisation in Mexico for women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest”. AI’s official position now is that “where women’s access to safe and legal abortion services and information is restricted, their fundamental human rights may be at grave risk”.

All this is a far cry from the noble origins of AI. It was founded in London in 1961 by an Old Etonian lawyer called Peter Benenson (1921-2005), with the specific intention to focus on “prisoners of conscience”. It worked to “protect those imprisoned for non-violent expression of their views” and achieved international fame for its indefatigable campaigns. Its motto was, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness” and a smiling Benenson was later photographed doing just that.

It appears that Benenson, of Jewish origin, converted to Catholicism while at Eton, though you would be hard put to find this particular piece of information on websites, in AI official documents or in the New York Times obituary on his death (though Wiki does mention that he set up the organisation with a Quaker, Eric Baker). I had to go to The Benenson Society website – which seems to be quite separate from AI – to learn about Benenson’s religious beliefs. The Society, drawing on the obituary written by his friend, journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy – who himself, it relates, “is an opponent of the recent decision by Amnesty to abandon its policy of neutrality on abortion” – states that Benenson’s project in starting AI “was influenced by his religious experience” and adds that “It is striking how many of the key early figures of AI had strong religious connections – Quaker, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Far from being a secular project, one could argue that AI itself has its origins in the religious commitment to justice.”

It is very sad that this “religious commitment to justice” has now changed. Although I never got to know him personally, Benenson was a member of our (far-flung) parish in Buckinghamshire for many years. He died two years before Amnesty changed its official policy. A humble man, he turned down the offer of a knighthood, preferring to focus quietly on the task in hand. What would he have made of his organisation’s aggressive new stance? And why was there a need for change in the first place? I would have thought that here are still enough “prisoners of conscience” around the world to absorb all AI’s energies without the need to bow before feminist and political pressure.