The recent decision by Amnesty International to include in its mission a demand for access to abortion has meant the sad and bitter end of a wonderful relationship with the human rights organisation for many of its members.

For myself, the break is akin to a painful divorce. I am – or was – the convenor of an Amnesty group. Over the years my group and I met regularly, writing hundreds of letters on behalf of victims of human rights abuses and raising thousands of dollars through our fund-raising efforts.

Twelve years ago I started and ran a student Amnesty group in the school where I work. It was a joy helping the students work hard for others while gaining an awareness of human rights issues. The group has now morphed under the leadership of another teacher into a World Vision group as well. (This teacher will be abandoning the Amnesty component of the group in response to what she sees as a hypocritical move on the part of Amnesty. “How many of the aborted around the world are girls?” she asked me.)

Prior to making this decision, Amnesty approached the convenors of their groups to answer a survey on abortion issues. Convenors were presented with three options: that abortion be defined and demanded by Amnesty as a human right; that abortion be demanded under certain circumstances; that the issue of abortion be ignored by Amnesty. Each country took their results to the international conference held in April this year, where the decision was made to opt for the least controversial option – that abortion be demanded only in the cases of rape in war in places like the Sudan.

For Amnesty this decision is regarded as something of a compromise. There are members who are angry that abortion is not being defined and demanded by Amnesty as a human “right”. Some who do not agree with abortion are remaining with the group, reluctantly agreeing that in some cases abortion is a necessary evil. However for many of us this is not a compromise but a radical move which violates everything Amnesty stands for.

As Chris Middleton recently pointed out in The Australian newspaper, Amnesty’s new policy “goes right to the core of Amnesty as a human rights organisation and as a body that gives primacy to conscience. It strikes against the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child which states that every child ‘needs special safeguards and care, including legal protection, before as well as after birth’”.

Let’s face it: if Amnesty’s mandate is to work to protect people from human rights violations, who is more voiceless, more vulnerable, more innocent and more in need of protection from the ultimate violation of their rights than the unborn child?

Amazingly, Amnesty also sees this decision as somehow “neutral”. When the Vatican criticised Amnesty’s decision and called for Catholics to abandon support for the organisation, the official response in Australia was that “AI takes no position on the rights and wrongs of abortion and does not counsel women as to whether they should continue or terminate a pregnancy.”

The contention that this decision is somehow beyond morality is absurd. The demand for any abortion carries with it the possibility of two possible assumptions, both of which are contrary to Amnesty’s mission. One is that abortion is acceptable since the unborn child is in some way less than human and therefore can be disposed of without any violation of his or her human rights. This position is difficult to defend and cannot be proven. In fact, all medical evidence points to the clear common sense conclusion that unborn children are human beings, since they possess from conception all the genetic information they will need for the rest of their lives, lacking only time to develop and grow.

For Amnesty to take a position on this controversial issue is, therefore, offensive to many of its members who believe that the unborn child is such from the moment of conception. More to the point, it represents a move away from Amnesty’s area of expertise and in fact violates its mandate to protect human rights around the globe.

There is also the possibility that this decision assumes that the unborn child is a human being, but that its human rights are superseded by those of the mother. While neither of these assumptions are directly addressed by Amnesty, the organisation argues that with so many women left traumatised and pregnant as a result of rape, what else can be done?

Let’s look at the issue of the mother carefully. For a start, a stance against abortion does not rule out compassion for the woman so horribly violated. In fact it rests upon it. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that abortion causes the mother post-traumatic stress syndrome. For many it is an essentially violent act against a woman’s body. A woman who has been raped can only be further traumatised by the abortion of a baby, which is, despite the horror of the situation, partly her own. Nobody should ever down play the unspeakable grief and distress caused by rape. But the moment you say “kill the child to help the mother”, you are placing one person’s human rights over another, and opening the doors for real horror.

To date, Amnesty’s campaigns to stop violence against women have been truly inspiring and positive. Among other things, Amnesty has campaigned to stop the gender-selective abortions which see the termination of millions of girls in countries such as China. But one has to wonder who is pushing for this latest development – the victims of rape themselves, or Westerners who have a controlling interest in Amnesty? If the latter, are they misled do-gooders or radical so-called feminists with a vested interest in promoting abortion on demand? As Middleton argues, “(the policy) goes much further than purely advocating decriminalisation. Thus it commits Amnesty to working “to ensure access to abortion services” where there is danger to a woman’s life or health. It would apply as much to Australia as it would to Darfur.”

Perhaps we will never know who or what is behind the decision. Amnesty has tried hard to keep this issue out of the media, to the point of almost concealing the decision from members such as myself. After regular contact with Amnesty as I nervously awaited the verdict, I – and others like me – only heard about the final decision via the media.

Acts of violence, such as the use of rape as a weapon in war in places like the Sudan must be stopped. The unwanted pregnancies which are the result must be prevented. But the difficulty we have in doing this should not lead us to opt for the solution so typical of our Western mentality – if it’s a problem, get rid of it.

It was contact with innocent victims of torture – in some cases family men and women who just had the misfortune of knowing or working for people from the wrong side of the political fence – which prompted my original interest in Amnesty. It is my concern with the human rights of every person – including the unborn – which has forced me to leave.

Ironically, the founder of Amnesty, British lawyer Peter Benenson, was a convert to Catholicism. As far as I am aware, there was no suggestion during his lifetime that Amnesty should support abortion for any reason. Had the decision been made before his death two years ago, it may have forced him to leave as well.

Pam Field is a Sydney high school teacher.