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Amnesty's Abortion Stance Splits Grassroots Support

by Cahal Milmo

LONDON - The Bromley and Orpington Amnesty International Group will conduct its fundraising activities much as normal this autumn. Alongside a sponsored walk in Kent and a street collection in London, a local theatre group will lay on a charity premiere of its production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

But beneath the busy exterior of grassroots cam-paigning, there are rumblings of discontent. The group of about 25 activists in the suburbs of south-east London is one of a growing number across Britain which is grappling with resignations and dissent in the aftermath of Amnesty International's decision last month to change its stance on abortion.

A vote by the organisation's executive committee, composed of members from 52 countries, to campaign for the right of women to have access to abortion in certain circumstances was greeted by the high-profile resignations of two bishops and criticism from the Vatican, which accused Amnesty of betraying its founding principles and called for Catholics to stop donating to the group.

Now some within Amnesty's 250,000-strong UK membership have added their weight to what critics say is a rebellion by activists over the change of policy and the way in which it was achieved.

The divisions have been intensified by the fact that many of Amnesty's local groups, which account for 7,000 members, have their origins in churches and religious groups bitterly opposed to abortion. Amnesty raises £250,000 a year through its UK branches.

Neville White, chairman of the Bromley and Orpington group, said his group, which raises about £5,000 a year for Amnesty, has lost a Catholic member who was responsible for auditing its accounts while other groups in the area have suffered further resignations and the threat of the withdrawal of their meeting rooms by churches.

The Independent has been told that branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle have also been hit by departures of long-standing members and there have been calls for debate about the possibility of unilaterally opting out of the new policy.

Mr White, who has contributed to a debate on the issue in the letters page of this newspaper, said: "I think the leadership of Amnesty have failed to grasp how divisive this policy has been and instead taken the view that they must not buckle to the views of local campaigners.

"Much of the strength of Amnesty lies in the work of its local activists who are on the streets weekend after weekend and yet the consultation of the membership was at best too brief and lacking in the necessary depth to tackle such a sensitive subject.

The branch, which was founded by members of a Quaker group, is to meet with other local activists to discuss a further response to the new policy, which was adopted with a large majority at a meeting of Amnesty's governing council in Mexico. The policy has also provoked strong reactions beyond Britain. Amnesty has two million members worldwide, many of them in staunchly Catholic countries.

Under the new provision, Amnesty will now campaign for countries to allow abortion for women in cases of rape, incest, sexual assault or when the pregnancy put the mother's life or her health at grave risk.

The human rights group denied that it had rushed through its consultation with its UK membership, saying it had begun a debate on the abortion issue early in 2005 and been voted on by its annual meeting twice. It also played downd resignations among its membership.

A spokeswoman said: "There has not been an exodus. If anything, we have had a number of people making of point of showing their support for the policy. Our local groups are very important and we deeply respect anybody's right to follow their conscience."

2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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