Pro-lifers taking a new direction

Prison reform is human dignity issue that needs to be addressed urgently.
William West | 15 January 2013
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It is unfortunate that in countries like the United States, Britain and Australia, the image that so many people have of pro-life bodies, is that they are basically single-issue groups focussed on lobbying against abortion. This may be one of the reasons why right-to-lifers have had so much difficulty in earning broader community support -- in many cases they have lost the battle for hearts and minds because they are seen as opposing those who stand for "compassion".

The problem is that in the abortion debate where "difficult cases" are concerned pregnant women are seen as being in need of our compassion. On the other hand, the "foetus" is so often misrepresented as an abstraction rather than a human life -- as a "clump of cells" causing apparently unbearable distress to a mother. Of course, right-to-lifers have garnered some kudos for compassion when they have assisted women with crisis pregnancies -- although many people are still unaware of these activities. In recent times Christian groups have also been establishing pregnancy centres to provide a more holistic approach to supporting women in crisis.

Nevertheless, many people are still not aware of this aspect of the pro-life movement and some of those who are aware still discount this compassion as misplaced because they believe it is not compassionate to help a woman in distress to go through with a pregnancy she does not really want.

Clearly pro-lifers need to find more ways to demonstrate the compassion that motivates them and one way of doing this is to support human dignity across a broad range of issues. In this respect the movement as a whole could learn from two former presidents of the Right To Life Association in the Australian state of New South Wales, Mr Greg Smith and Mr Damian Tudehope. Mr Smith is the Attorney General of the state, the Minister for Justice and the Minister in charge of corrective services and Mr Tudehope is his Chief of Staff. For the past year, since taking power, both men have launched a crusade to defend the human rights and the dignity of prisoners in the state’s jails -- a group which has been treated as something of a political football by politicians.

In the past, whenever an election has come around, politicians on both sides of politics have engaged in a bidding war to see who can be most severe on convicted criminals in order to prove their law-and-order credentials. But in the last election, Mr Smith refused to engage in this practice, instead outlining a program for treating prisoners like human beings, partly by trying to rehabilitate them.

As Mr Tudehope explained to university students at Warrane College at the University of New South Wales towards the end of last year, Mr Smith believes that prison should be a last resort partly because prisons tend to function as "universities of crime". During his term as Attorney General the prison population has been culled from 10,200 inmates to 9,500. Instead of routinely jailing offenders, Mr Smith has sought to establish programs that allow them to remain out of jail while carrying out worthwhile service to the community and working to pay off fines.

At the heart of Mr Smith’s approach is the recognition that 50 per cent of offenders in the jails under his jurisdiction were drug affected when they committed their offence. That is because they had a drug habit. But in the past little was done, beyond introducing drug substitution programs like the methadone program, to help them to reduce their drug dependency.

"The Attorney is of the view that if they go to jail and we do nothing about their drug habit, clearly when they leave jail they are going to re-offend," Mr Tudehope said. "Clearly you can’t have people leaving jail without having done something to reduce their drug dependency."

As a result of this approach the first inmates have graduated from a drug treatment program in a special jail. Twenty graduates from that program have passed through the jail and on the last day of that program they were drug free. By the end of 2013, it is expected that 300 people will have been through the program.

Of course, the need to help prisoners in jails to rehabilitate themselves should be obvious to anybody with even a passing interest in human rights and it is probably something that all human rights groups around the world should have been more vocal about. But the essential point is that Mr Smith and Mr Tudehope are now leading the charge in this direction and this can do nothing but good for the "compassionate credentials" of right-to-lifers as a whole. The two pro-lifers have certainly been attracting plenty of public attention by advocating this cause -- talkback radio hosts who used to make the most noise about supporting "law-and-order" politicians during elections have been calling for Smith’s head on a plate. But their humane approach is also attracting supporters.

Pro-lifers around the world really need to consider building on this foundation. Not only should they be speaking more loudly about the human rights of convicted criminals, but also against the full range of human rights abuses -- the kinds of abuses that Amnesty International has long championed. The opportunity to do so has never been greater than it is right now, partly because of the fact that many traditional supporters of Amnesty have been alienated from the organisation in recent years because of the decision to support a woman’s "right" to abortion. In particular, this decision has inflamed tension with many former Christian supporters of Amnesty who feel themselves disenfranchised by the new policy. If pro-life groups were to broaden their platform to include more human rights issues, many of those alienated by Amnesty could be attracted to playing a stronger role in the pro-life cause.

Another issues that Mr Smith and Mr Tudehope have been pushing is the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people. One of the biggest scandals in the country is the high proportion of Aborigines in jails. It has been estimated that 43 percent of juvenile inmates in NSW jails are indigenous and 30 percent of adults are indigenous. Smith has been engaged in developing programs to deal with this problem as well.

Mr Tudehope summed up the compassionate philosophy that Mr Smith is promoting in this way: "We need to not have a mentality which says that because they (convicted criminals) have committed a crime they are therefore hopeless forever. There’s an obligation for lawyers and politicians to rehabilitate people as an arm of justice and to make sure that they can perhaps lead proper lives when they are released."

He could have added that there should be an obligation for the supporters of human rights and human dignity in areas like abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment to widen their focus a little to address a broader range of human rights abuses and, by doing so, be seen to exercise the same compassion that motivates them in right-to-life issues.

William West is a Sydney based journalist and the Editor of Perspective magazine.

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