BY SIMON CALDWELL
THE BRITISH section of Amnesty International has adopted a policy of campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion wherever it is illegal.
The move by the human rights group came in spite of the results of a year-long internal consultation which showed that the majority of ordinary members did not want to abandon the group's official position of neutrality.
At a meeting at the Harriot Watt University, Edinburgh, the Amnesty board pushed through a motion formally adopting a policy to advocate the legalisation of abortion, especially following cases of rape, incest, sexual assault and a risk to the mother's life.
A motion in support of abortion on demand failed, while another upholding the group's neutral stance was passed. The conflicting motions mean that Amnesty International UK has chosen to advocate an abortion policy when the matter is decided by the International Executive Committee next month — but will urge restraint in campaigning for liberal abortion laws.
Christine Usher, the board member who proposed the pro-abortion resolutions, told the meeting there was sufficient support for abortion among the 72 national sections for a policy to be implemented soon.
A number of British members, however, said they felt betrayed because only a week earlier the results of a consultation showed a majority of them opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion.
Debby Wakeham, a member from Luton, Bedfordshire, said the policy was clearly being "imposed from top down".
She said the pro-abortion motion was passed because the delegates at the annual general meeting did not represent the views of the membership.
She said the abortion policy "has not come from the membership and it has not come from the countries in which Amnesty works".
"I'm extremely angry," she added. "I think it is outrageous that the views of the membership are being disregarded in this way."
Another member, Michael Hill from Rotherham, south Yorkshire, said: "I feel very disappointed and let down. They f the board] have manipulated the decision-making process until they got what they wanted."
Amnesty spokeswoman Sarah Green said the aim of any policy on abortion would be to help to address human rights abuses such as rape and sexual violence in Congo and Sudan and the imprisonment and sentencing to death of women in Nigeria for abor tion-related offences. "Anmesty International would continue to take no position on the rights and wrongs of abortion, which it sees as a matter of personal choice," she said.
The move, however, was criticised by pro-life groups. Fiorella Nash of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: "The pro-abortion lobby has gained a great deal of what they campaigned for and Amnesty has turned its back on years of powerful witness in the field of human rights."
Amnesty was founded in 1961 by Oxford lawyer Peter Benenson, a Catholic, to fight for the release of prisoners of conscience, for fair trials for political prisoners and for an end to torture, ill-treatment, political killings, "disappearances" and the death penalty.