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Amnesty abortion proposal draws ire

Antiabortion, religious groups build attack

ATHENS -- Known for its human rights work, Amnesty International is under siege from religious groups outraged by a proposal that would expand Amnesty's mandate to include supporting access to abortion in cases such as sexual violence.

A small but growing band of antiabortion campaigners and Roman Catholic clerics -- including some who have backed Amnesty's activities in the past -- say the Nobel Prize-winning group is drifting away from its principles of unbiased advocacy.

They have threatened to pull away members and donations, and have called for a flood of protest letters to Amnesty offices, the same strategy Amnesty uses to pressure for the release of political prisoners and others.

Amnesty officials noted that any decision is more than a year away at the earliest, and defended their right to debate abortion and birth control within the context of women's rights.

Top Amnesty officials were unavailable for interviews, but the group released a statement from its London headquarters saying it ``does not make policy according to the ebbs and flows of external pressure."

It's unclear how deeply the antiabortion factions could punish Amnesty. But religious groups have long been a pillar of the organization, which was founded in 1961 by a Catholic lawyer in Britain and has more than 1.8 million members and many supporters around the world. Its work to free people held by repressive regimes led to Amnesty winning the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize.

``This is completely inconsistent with what Amnesty has been about," said John-Henry Westen, a board member of the Campaign Life Coalition, a Toronto-based group representing about 110,000 families. ``We consider this an attack on the rights of the unborn."

Westen said some members -- including several ``significant" financial contributors to Amnesty -- have stopped supporting the group.

``This is forcing people to make a choice," he said.

Amnesty's regional offices are being asked to study whether to end the group's official ``neutral" stance on abortion. In its place, the group could declare access to abortion a human right in specific cases including rape and life-threatening pregnancy complications. The proposals -- growing out of Amnesty's campaign to stop violence against women -- also include whether to support legal access to contraception.

Few places, including the United States, appear ready for an up or down vote on the matter. Instead, the discussions have been general, noncommittal, and passionate. In New Zealand, Amnesty's local director, Ced Simpson, said there have been ``strongly held views on both sides of the debate."

A final decision could come at Amnesty's next international gathering in Mexico in August 2007. If there's agreement that the abortion rights proposal has support, it could be adopted by consensus or put to a formal vote.

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