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Amnesty International responds

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  • June 22, 2007
Editor’s note: The following article is a response by Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, to the June 3 Catholic Register editorial, The wrong road, in which we criticized the adoption by Amnesty International of a policy of defending a woman’s access to abortion as a right.


A woman in Nigeria languishes in prison for over 10 years because she sought out information about obtaining an abortion. A woman in Argentina is left to die inside a hospital — the doctor did not want to treat her because she had had an abortion. A woman in Darfur wanders alone, pregnant as a result of rape, ostracized by her family and community, who cries out that she would rather die than have this baby.

Until recently, given the limitations in Amnesty International’s policy on sexual and reproductive rights, we have not been able to take up these women’s cases. That has left much of our important work to promote and defend women’s human rights incomplete. 

In October 2004 Amnesty International launched a global campaign to stop violence against women. We have since issued over 50 reports in 50 different countries documenting various forms of violence against women, including grave sexual violence. Through that research we are in regular contact with women human rights defenders and the women and girls who have survived horrific acts of violence. It became clear that if we were truly going to respond to the harrowing reality of violence against women, we needed to address the widespread violations of sexual and reproductive rights that are the agonizing reality for women and girls around the world. 

At an international meeting in August 2005, representatives from Amnesty International chapters around the world launched a process to reconsider our position on a wide range of sexual and reproductive rights. That decision was preceded and followed by extensive discussions and consultations throughout Amnesty, including further meetings at international and national levels.  In Canada we held discussions and consultations at meetings, via e-mail and by post. Our members were updated on the progress of those discussions and the process and timeline for decision-making at the international level.

In April of this year, after more than two years of comprehensive consultations, Amnesty International’s International Executive Committee adopted a new policy on selected aspects of abortion. With this policy, when necessary and appropriate we will now be able to:

  • Demand the repeal of laws that allow women to be charged, imprisoned or otherwise subjected to criminal penalties for seeking or having an abortion.

  • Insist that any woman who suffers complications from an abortion has the right to access the medical services she needs, whether she obtained the abortion legally or illegally.

  • Call for access to abortion services for any woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape, sexual assault or incest, or where a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life or a grave risk to her health.

The editorial, The wrong road, (Catholic Register, June 3, 2007) argues that in adopting this policy Amnesty International has deemed abortion to be a matter of women’s rights. This new position does not assert that access to abortion is an unfettered right. Amnesty International is demanding that women must be free from fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations, as reflected in the heart-wrenching real-life examples from Nigeria, Argentina and Darfur, above.

Amnesty International is passionately committed to practising what we preach. We are fortunate to have among our membership many individuals of the Catholic and other faiths. Thanks to their generosity and commitment we will continue to do everything possible to ensure that universal human rights, very much including the long-neglected rights of women and girls, are protected — everywhere.

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