LONDON — Abortion has driven a wedge between the Catholic Church and an organization that began as an ally.

Amnesty International (AI) was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a British convert to Catholicism. But today, as a result of Amnesty International’s recent decision to promote abortion rights, Church leaders say that Catholics should withdraw all financial support from the London-based human-rights organization.

“I believe that, if in fact Amnesty International persists in this course of action, individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support, because, in deciding to promote abortion rights, AI has betrayed its mission,” Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said in an e-mail interview.

The abortion policy has already cost Amnesty International the support of one long-time Catholic backer: Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan.

Said Father Berrigan, “One cannot support an organization financially or even individually that is contravening something very serious in our ethic.”

Such a reaction from a human rights activist doesn’t surprise Cardinal Martino. Amnesty International “has betrayed all of its faithful supporters throughout the years,” he said, “both individuals and organizations, who have trusted AI for its integral mission of promoting and protecting human rights.”

Until this year, Amnesty International was officially neutral on the issue of abortion. In April, the group’s executive board decided to drop that neutrality. Now, the group will promote access to abortion for women who are victims of rape and for women whose life or health is endangered by pregnancy.

Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law, policy and campaigns, said that discussion about the new abortion policy began more than two years ago, after Amnesty International became involved in a global campaign to stop violence against women.

According to Brown, in the context of that initiative Amnesty International officials talked to a lot of women who had been raped and wanted access to abortions as a consequence.

Brown also cited a World Health Organization estimate that 68,000 women die annually as a result of unsafe abortions.

“Once we looked at that figure, neutrality would have meant essentially saying it’s okay that 68,000 women a year die because of criminalization of abortion,” Brown said.

But Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), said Brown’s argument that rape justifies access to abortion has been used routinely by pro-abortion lobbyists since the 1990s.

“During negotiations for the International Criminal Court, they used the phrase ‘forced pregnancy,’” Ruse recalled. “They said that if a woman did not have access to abortion after a rape in wartime, she was said to have experienced ‘forced pregnancy.’ So they’ve been using this as a pretext for a very long time.”

In fact, Amnesty International’s Brown was directly involved in the effort to incorporate a pro-abortion definition of “forced pregnancy” into the International Criminal Court’s statute. In 1998, while she was working for Human Rights Watch as an advocacy director for women’s rights programs, she participated as a lobbyist for the pro-abortion Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice in the negotiations in Rome that drafted the statute.

At the insistence of the Holy See delegation and other pro-life delegations at those negotiations, however, the statute includes a footnote stating the International Criminal Court’s definition of forced pregnancy “shall not in any way be interpreted as affecting national laws relating to pregnancy.”

Ruse said international abortion lobbyists use subterfuges like the rape issue to try to promote abortion as a “human right” because “they cannot come right out and win an up-or-down vote on abortion, even using extreme circumstances, at the United Nations.”

Ruse also rejected Brown’s claim that Amnesty International only recently began considering whether to promote abortion rights.

Ruse said that Amnesty International representatives at the United Nations have supported pro-abortion initiatives for a number of years.

According to Amnesty International’s website, “AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.”

However, abortion is not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in any other internationally recognized human rights document. And the preamble of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, one of the United Nations’ foremost human rights documents, states, “The child … needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”

Brown conceded that the right to abortion is not “expressly” enshrined in international human rights.

But she argued that the “right to health” of the pregnant woman trumps the unborn child’s right to life.

“Her right to health and the right to the quality of life that she needs and the healing that she needs, this is what we would say should be the priority,” Brown said.

To such a viewpoint, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

Cardinal Martino said that Amnesty International’s effort to justify abortion in the case of rape and threats to the mother’s health is morally indefensible.

“The Church teaches that it is never justifiable to kill an innocent human life. Abortion is murder,” he said. “To selectively justify abortion, even in the cases of rape, is to define the innocent child within the womb as an enemy, a ‘thing’ that must be destroyed. How can we say that killing a child in some cases is good and in other cases it is evil?”

Cardinal Martino is not the only person to condemn Amnesty International’s promotion of abortion, and to warn that Catholics will withdraw support if the decision isn’t reversed.

Last September, after media reports disclosed that the group was considering the change in abortion policy, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a letter to Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan.

“If Amnesty International were to advocate for abortion as a human right, it would risk diminishing its own well-deserved moral credibility,” Bishop Skylstad said. “It certainly would most likely divide its own members, many of whom are Catholic, and others who defend the rights of unborn children. It could jeopardize Amnesty’s support by people in many nations, cultures and religions.”

Father Berrigan said he first became acquainted with Amnesty’s work in the 1960s, when the newly formed group launched a campaign on behalf of Archbishop Josef Beran of Prague, who was imprisoned by Czechoslovakia’s Communist government after he spoke out against government abuses.

“I was very moved with the international activity on behalf of powerless people,” Father Berrigan said. And, he added, no one is more powerless than unborn children in the womb who are at risk of being killed by abortion.

Father Berrigan emphatically agreed with Cardinal Martino’s statement that individual Catholics and Catholic organizations should withdraw all support for Amnesty International if it doesn’t reverse its decision to advocate for abortion rights.

“I’ve supported over the years Amnesty’s take on prisoners of conscience around the world, and have been a member of Amnesty,” he said. “And I was quite shaken by this change.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.