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

Aren’t there enough prisoners of conscience without the human rights group bowing to feminist pressure?

By on Wednesday, 15 August 2012

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.

  • James

    Thank you.  I wonder what AI will do when those who oppose abortion and gay marriage are unjustly imprisoned as prisoners of conscience?  Seeing as they have sold out to the culture of death, they may well become the gaolers themselves.

  • alex

    I too quit AI when they inexplicably became a pro-abortion group.

  • nytor

    “Amnesty calls on governments to repeal …conscience protection for medical workers who may object”

    This bit is almost more shocking than their campaigning for abortion. So AI doesn’t believe in protection for freedom of conscience now? They have sold out. They have adopted the soft totalitarian liberal orthodoxies and no longer deserve support.

  • Michael Petek

    This wouldn’t be surprising, given that AI must now be considered as a criminal organisation alongside Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    To speak of human rights and support AI is like speaking of peace and supporting the Soviet Union.

  • Charles

    To counteract the politics of false victim-hood and guilt appeals we must reject the Left’s assumptions and return to the idea of individual rights rather than the communist notion of group rights. There should be no minority or womens rights there should be only human rights- and these do not include killing other humans.

  • whytheworldisending

    It is a common story. Movements motivated by religious faith become organisations. Their success attracts those ambitious for personal recognition and material rewards and they become surrounded by people constantly on the look out for an opportunity to make money. “Where the corpse is, there will the vultures be gathered.” The CAB is an example. It was started by a christian vicar, but hijacked by various atheists with axes to grind. School education is another example. Once corrupted such ventures dwindle away or become part of the problem - “Cut off from me you can do nothing.”

  • Mike D

    Though they say they don’t take money from governments or governmental institutions on their website, Wiki advises otherwise and indicates that AI has taken money from the UK Government, The European Commission and the US State Department.
    After the recent exposure of numerous charities as having taken government monies and then become advocates of government policy which in many cases appear to contradict their founding principals, it looks to me that Amnesty has just followed the regular pattern. Just another sock puppet for government telling it what it wants the public to hear under the guise of being independent, conscience driven advice.
    And so the slide down the slippery slope continues to accelerate. I dread to think where this is going to end up. 

    Bit off topic,  but at least the Biden’s, Pelosi’s and Sibelius’ have chosen what they think is the winning side. Thank G*d for Paul Ryan.

  • Lazarus

    I was heavily involved with Amnesty whilst a student. Seeing it morph into another lifestyle campaigning organization from its original, simple moral purpose has been a great sadness for me. It’s been a major supporter of same sex ‘marriage’ in Scotland at least -see

  • Fr Gerard

    The problem is that many of the the right are influenced by libertarianism and state that individual rights include the right to abortion. It isn’t so simple as left and right. 

  • CatholicLeftwinger

    I remember a letter from a gentleman at the time of the pro-abortion shift of AI where he stated that because the Catholic Church was no longer supporting AI, he would become an active supporter. My only response to him was to ask why he had not supported those wrongly imprisoned before and suggested that his passing support would not last as long as the steadfast support of the many thousands now being forced out of the organisation.

    As for what Mr Benenson would think, a ‘comedian’ on the ‘Secret Policeman’s Ball’ just after the decision began his routine with the words: “I f#&king hate God”. Say no more.

  • paulpriest

    The Tablet has reported the Vatican to Amnesty International over the alleged Vatileaks ‘cover up’

    How long is this fiasco with the Tablet going to continue?

  • GFFM

    I actually think Amnesty International leaders take a certain glee in deconstructing the Catholicity of the organisation’s origins. Of course AI is not longer about justice; it’s about abortion and the fanatical purveyance of a completely leftist ideological agenda.

  • JabbaPapa
  • Meena

    Telegraph readers voted about 2 to 1 against the “modernist horror” in the on-line poll. A little surprising.

    But this probably excludes the Captain Bogwashes from Tonbridge Wells and their like, who seldom go on-line.

  • Meena

    I’ve just joined it.

  • Meena

    “AI must now be considered as a criminal organisation”
    AI is always short of funds for its excellent work.

    Your above ridiculous statement could damage their fund raising. May I suggest (should they read this) that they obtain the necessary injunction, to present to your ISP, in order to sue you for this damaging statement. 

  • Meena

    To return to the question: ”
    What would Amnesty’s Catholic founder think of AI now?”

    1.  I have no idea.

    2. Does it matter?

  • scary goat

     Oh my goodness!  I wish you hadn’t posted that link and I wish I hadn’t checked it out! I just don’t know what to say …. that’s one of those things I wish I didn’t know.

    By the way there was another thread where I thought to mention something to you, then I couldn’t fine the post again, there were so many.  Have you read “The Golden String” by Bede Griffiths?  Just thought you might like it. It’s available on amazon.  I read it recently, it was lent to me by a friend, and I thought it might appeal to you.

  • dennissinclair

    As with many similar organizations, the left leaning ones sneak in and when the gain positions of power change the nature of the organizations.  The Ford Foundation comes to mind.  The organization stands in opposition to its founding principles. 

  • Meena

    Every living thing (animal, plant, outlook, institution..) in the world changes – always has, and always will.

    If it doesn’t, it’s dead.

  • JabbaPapa

    That looks interesting, though it would seem to be something of more value to someone struggling with issues related to conversion, or even re-conversion for some lapsing cradle Catholics.

    It’s certainly true that most are afforded only subtle glimpses of what was pointed out to me as if in the full blast of glaring headlights !!

  • JabbaPapa

    Bad old freedom of speech eh ?

  • BTyler

    I suppose it should matter to AI in that by abandoning a neutral position on abortion they alienate the billion Catholics around the world that might otherwise support them.

  • Meena

    Not at all.
    But there are always limits to freedom of speech.

  • Meena

    Some (how many we cannot know) of these Catholics will support early abortions on various grounds.

    Abortion is not a single simple concept. The abortion of an early foetus is very different to that of a near full-term embryo. The differences lie in the different stages of development (brain and central nervous system) and the possible (or near possible) survival of the embryo extra-utero.

  • Meena

    “The problem is that many of the the right are influenced by libertarianism”
    This is one (I would say strange) way of describing the phenomenon.

    In my view, so far as the UK is concerned, the political Right realised some years ago that it is unelectable unless it embraces many of the enlightened policies of the more liberal (with a small “l”) Left. 

  • scary goat

     Hi Jabba.  I wouldn’t say it was particularly for anyone struggling with conversion.  It is an autobiography of a convert and I found it very interesting because of the parallels with my own case although in quite different circumstances.  The idea is how the end of the string is offered to each of us in a different way and it’s up to us to wind the thread.  For me, it set my own experiences in context of the bigger picture.  I enjoyed it greatly, I suppose it sort of gave me a feeling of where I belong in the scheme of things. Just thought you might enjoy it too, as you have made odd comments at times relating to the experience of your conversion.

  • JabbaPapa

    Maybe I got handed the other end of the string first, and have been pulling it in instead of following it :)

    I dunno ; I used to think I’d be interested in the conversion stories of others, but I found instead that when I actually look at any, my usual reaction is just “been there, done that” — which really, is rather odd.

    I’m more moved by mysticism, or by Christian/Catholic experiences unlike my own, mediaeval poetry, and oddly enough by the orthodoxy of doctrine.

    And by the Eucharist of course.

    Though I’m always a sucker for a good pilgrim story !!! :-)

  • Hamish Redux

    Putting forward a purely materialistic “culture of death” interpretation of what life is about — ignoring the soul, for example — is not exactly going to endear you to readers of a Catholic newspaper. Indeed, it seems that you are deliberately trolling.

  • scary goat

     Haha….that’s quite odd actually.  I have a bit of a similar experience, although for me it was more like untangling a knotted up pile of thread till eventually I ended up right back where I started except that now it was clear and made sense. Also a bit of a feeling of being “reeled in” which can only really be appreciated with hindsight.

    The “been there, done that” was exactly what I enjoyed about it.  I don’t suppose I’d really want to read endless conversion stories either, but that one was really an experience for me.

    The Eucharist is totally central for me…..probably because my first experience was related to the Real Presence at a time when I had absolutely no idea what that meant….never even heard of it.

    I also tend to go for the factual stuff…..Church history.
    :- )

  • Jane

    I don’t think the Catholic Herald is for you, Meena. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Ah ! The “reeled in” experience !!!

    “been there, done that” :o)

    Actually for me, lasted just three/four weeks or so, and I was fully conscious and aware of what was happening, though I gave my agnosticism and natural doubt every possible chance to engage with the experience critically… In the end, my critical methodology and Occam’s Razor themselves ended up providing the final proof of the pudding.

    The truly weird thing though is that my subsequent wide open independent research into philosophy and comparative religions/mythologies which *should* in any normal circumstances have led me into some kind of personally-formulated formal heresy of one kind or another instead led me to a completely independently re-created formulation of orthodox Catholic thought.

    It’s just *stunning* to contemplate the razor sharp omniscience that was at work there, that revealed those things to me and those things only which, given the shape of my own mind and my own logical idiosyncrasies and the randomness of my studies, would lead me *inevitably* to such a detailed recreation of the Doctrines of the Faith.

    (when I finally read the CCC it took me over 3 months to do so, because it was such a tedious chore, that felt as though I were reading a copy of a 5-year old newspaper — only 5% or so of its contents were actually new to me in any way at all)

  • Ronk

     “Your above [not-so-] ridiculous statement could damage their fund raising.”

    I most certainly hope and fervently pray that it does!! And that AI members and supporters will do as I and many other have done, quit AI (which I had supported for many years) and join the Benenson Society or some other group which truly fights for human rights. It’s the only way that AI will be turned back to its orginial charter instead of, as it does now, agitating for the REMOVAL of human rights from the most vulnerable members of society.

  • licjjs

    Meena, the question is: what does it change into?  Is it to a more mature, developed form of itself (as, for example, the embryo) or is it into a rogue growth, militating against the very body feeding it, as in cancer.  After all, the problem with cancer is that it cannot stop growing.  Dying is also changing.

  • licjjs


    Ah, the fisher of men at work!

  • scary goat


  • scary goat

     Again, very similar experience although for me it took much longer. I went via the scenic route.  I didn’t understand my earlier experiences and it took mind a long time to catch up with heart.  A lot of random studies and experiences, then the final realisation that what I thought and felt already was staring back at me and had been there all along.  I had a conversation with Jonathan West once where he said it seemed highly unlikely that anyone could independently and rationally come to the same conclusions as the Church,  but I came surprisingly close.  And the missing details then made sense of my earlier experiences.  A recurring theme for me was in times of distress feeling overwhelmed by “I want to go home” but having no idea of where home was….until I found it and recognised it. I don’t really think I did it all by myself. I find it reassuring that others have had very similar experiences.  That was what I liked so much in that book. :-)

  • JabbaPapa

    People like that Jonathan West haven’t the foggiest clue …

    Yes, these experiences or similar are more common in converts than cradle Catholics, and there are pros and cons both to being a cradle Catholic and to being a convert.

    It’s not true of course that either type of Catholic is somehow “better” or “more genuine” than the other, the source of Revelation is the same no matter how it gets communicated to you.

    It *did* take me 10 years after the conversion to be ready for baptism though ; not just because of the intellectual aspect of it, but also because there was the entirety of my University studies sandwiched in there, and because of questions relating to religious issues rather than faith ones as such, that were unresolved at the time ; also because I wasn’t actually living in my proper home, but was up in Paris instead.

  • scary goat

     Yes, the cradle catholics/converts issue is just swings and roundabouts really.  There will always be those who come to the Church and those who leave and those who stay and those who leave and come back again.  Maybe God provides each of us with the journey we need and it’s up to us to listen or not, we have a choice. This is where the “indoctrination” argument often thrown at us by the atheists falls down. (like atheists don’t indoctrinate!) Ultimately at some point in maturity people will think for themselves and question the status quo….accept or reject, and if I reject where do I go from here. Sometimes I lament not having followed my nose much earlier….life would probably have been much easier….(or so I imagine…but not necessarily, who knows)….but then maybe it isn’t meant to be easy.  Cradle Catholics have the advantage of having been brought up with it, converts have the advantage of  knowing what it’s like to be without it.  We can all help each other from our various perspectives.

  • scary goat

     I have absolutely no idea what this post means.  Who are Captain Bogwashes?  And if I was from Tonbridge Wells should I feel insulted? 

  • Michael Wood

    Many Catholics (including myself) are reformist, and actually realise that many things the Church tells them are immoral, antiquated and contrary to human rights. What would Benenson think? Great question.