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Pope says abortion "not a human right"

VIENNA (Reuters) - Pope Benedict rejected the concept that abortion could be considered a human right on Friday and urged European leaders to do everything possible to raise birth rates and make their countries more child-friendly.

The 80-year-old German Pontiff told diplomats and representatives of international organizations that Europe could not deny its Christian roots because Christianity had played a decisive role in forging its history and culture.

“It was in Europe that the notion of human rights was first formulated. The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself,” he said in an address at the former imperial Hofburg Palace.

“This is true of life from the moment of conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right -- it is the very opposite. It is a deep wound in society.”

Abortion is available in the first three months of pregnancy in Austria under legislation similar to that of other Western European countries, many of Catholic tradition.

But his words had ramifications beyond Europe. Abortion is expected to a big issue in next year’s campaign for president in the United States, where conservatives want to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.

The Pope’s words also put him on a collision course with the human rights group Amnesty International, which has recently adopted a new stance supporting a woman’s right to abortion if her life is threatened of if she has been raped.

Senior Vatican officials have already sharply criticized Amnesty and urged Catholics to withdraw their support. Last month one of Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic bishops severed his ties with Amnesty after three decades.

In his address, the last speech on the first day of a three-day visit to Austria, the Pontiff indirectly decried Europe’s declining birth rates, appealing to politicians “not to allow children to be considered as a form of illness.”

He urged them to “do everything possible to make European countries once again open to welcoming children”.

The average birth rate in the European Union is down to about 1.5 children per woman, raising fears that an ageing population will not be able to finance pensions systems.

Some European countries have adopted, or plan to, incentives to encourage couples to have children, to try to reverse trends where couples have fewer children and begin families later. Experts say high housing prices are partly to blame.

The Pope said that although Europe was rapidly ageing demographically, it “must not become old in spirit”.

He also said Europe “cannot and must not deny her Christian roots” as they are “a dynamic component of our civilization”.

Last March, Benedict strongly criticized the European Union for excluding a mention of God and Christian roots in declarations on its 50th anniversary, saying the continent was committing a form of “apostasy of itself” by excluding God.

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