Amnesty’s own words: states must ensure access to abortion “in almost all cases”

(note: all of the links to Amnesty documents lead to its members-only site. Those of you who are not members can read the local copies I’ve linked. All are PDFs.)

Amnesty International has been claiming that its new policy on abortion (local copy) is limited in scope, because it will only push for states to guarantee access to abortion “for women who become pregnant as a result of rape, sexual assault or incest — or whose lives or health are at grave risk due to pregnancy.” Think about what the phrase “health at grave risk” means to you. It probably conjures up images of injury or illness that brings a person near death, or that may result in permanant disability. It probably doesn’t bring to mind a situation in which a healthy mother carrying a healthy baby seeks an abortion due to poverty or abandonment by the child’s father.

What does the health clause mean to Amnesty International?

When U.S. members were surveyed for their views on the exact language of the new policy on abortion (recall that they were not asked for their views on whether the new policy should be adopted at all), AI distributed explanatory material (local copy) along with the survey. The penultimate paragraph of this material reads:

“The scope of this policy will depend very substantially on the choice of options in paragraphs 8 and 9. If the broader options are chosen in both cases, then AI will be in a position to call for access to legal and safe abortions in almost all cases since the courts and medical practice in many countries have recognized that very many factors (ranging from fetal abnormalities to socio- economic pressures) can adversely affect a woman’s mental and physical health.” [emphasis added]

What are paragraphs 8 and 9 of the draft policy (local copy)? Paragraph 8 was about whether or not states could place any gestational limits on abortion. The broad option for paragraph 8 was not chosen, so Amnesty will accept “reasonable gestational limits”. But what about paragraph 9?

9. At a minimum, states must take all necessary measures to ensure that safe and legal abortion services are available, accessible, acceptable and of good quality for all women who require them in cases of:
(a) unwanted pregnancy as a result of rape, sexual assault or incest;

EITHER: (b1) pregnancy which endangers the life of the woman
OR: (b2) pregnancy which endangers the life of the woman or risks grave permanent injury to the physical health of the woman;
OR: (b3) pregnancy which endangers the life of the woman or risks grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the woman;

Option 9(b3) — the broadest “health”-related option — is the closest to the language in the newly adopted policy.

This goes well beyond the talking points Amnesty has been careful to put out in the press about “not wanting women to go to jail” or “ensuring access to abortion for women who have been raped”. Amnesty’s view is that their new policy lets them call upon states to ensure that women can have abortions in “almost all cases”, at least within (unspecified) gestational limits.

“Grave risk to health” amounts to “almost all cases”. That’s not pro-life paranoia or exaggeration. Those are Amnesty’s own words — they’re just not for public consumption.


Don’t let abortion poison human rights advocacy! I again urge people who are leaving Amnesty over this issue to continue to support other human rights groups. I’ve linked a few here and here.

3 thoughts on “Amnesty’s own words: states must ensure access to abortion “in almost all cases”

  1. Hi Jen,
    Thanks for the insightful analysis of these documents. I think it again demonstrates that the policy the AI leadership was determined to impose on the organisation is much broader in scope than they want to state publicly.

  2. Similar arguments were deployed in the UK when the present legislation was passed, but the resulting legislation also allowed abortion pretty widely – since proceeding with a pregnancy always places the mother’s health at risk.

    And what was the wording chosen for paragraph 9? You say it was closest to b3 – which suggests it was not quite that.

  3. The wording from the document Amnesty sent me (I’ve linked it in the second paragraph) when I asked about the official position is as follows:

    “Ensure access to abortion services to any woman who becomes pregnant as the result of rape, sexual assault, or incest, or where a pregnancy poses a risk to a woman’s life or a grave risk to her health.”

    Since neither physical nor mental health is specified in the official position, it appears to encompass both.

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