Abortion, authoritarianism, and human rights

25 Nov 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 25 Nov 2016

It is annoying to have to listen to people with whom you profoundly and passionately disagree. 

And it must have been embarrassing for Liz Nelson, chair of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) to discover that an anti-abortion seminar was planned for the annual Human Rights Festival which the HRC organises.  

She is after all, a member of the Belfast Feminist Network and an energetic pro-choice campaigner. But surely she should have put this in her diary as a must attend gig, rather than resigning as chair?

Abortion is a raw and divisive issue in Northern Ireland, which has very restrictive legislation -  it is still an offence under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and carries with it the harshest penalties in Europe.

The Human Rights Commission has successfully taken action through the courts arguing that Northern Ireland is in breach of Human Rights legislation by not allowing women and girls the option of abortion in circumstances of serious malformation of the foetus, rape or incest.

It won its case which is now subject to appeal. Given the current make-up of the Assembly at Stormont, however, comprehensive abortion reform seems unlikely in the near future.

This is an important social and political issue and it is unsurprising that so many Human Rights Campaigners align themselves with the pro-choice movement, asserting that it is, at its heart, one of human rights: the woman’s right to choose.

However, the anti-abortion movement also grounds its arguments in human rights terms: it asserts that terminations breach the unborns’ right to life, Article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights.

Different European jurisdictions take different views and fall into three categories:  those that believe that this happens at the moment of conception; those that believe it happens at the moment a foetus becomes capable of independent life, and those who argue that you cannot be a person until you are born.

The European Court of Human Rights has made a ruling on this issue:

 “At best, it may be regarded as common ground between States that the embryo/foetus belongs to the human race. The potentiality of that being and its capacity to become a person require protection in the name of human dignity, without making it a “person” with the “right to life” for the purposes of Article 2

“Having regard to the foregoing, the Court is convinced that it is neither desirable, nor even possible as matters stand, to answer in the abstract the question whether the unborn child is a person for the purposes of Article 2 of the Convention.”

Abortion needs to be debated. For reformers it is unfinished business where most elected politicians are on “the wrong side of the debate.”

How then could anyone wanting change in the law oppose a debate on the topic? Why on earth did Liz Nelson feel compelled to resign as chair of the HRC over it?

Unfortunately there has been a growing trend of authoritarianism in social and political discourse which extends to those who traditionally would have been seen, and regarded themselves, as liberal.

Perversely this culture now seems to have affected human rights campaigners.

It is almost as if freedom of speech is now regarded as optional  – whatever we deem to be right can be asserted by whatever means are judged necessary – and if freedom of speech gets in the way of that it should be discarded.  

We have seen a lot of this tendency in English Universities where “no platforming” has become a weapon to suppress ideas that those that control student bodies deem unacceptable.

This has led to gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell being targeted because, amongst other crimes, he was a signatory to a letter to the Guardian protesting at this creeping authoritarianism.

And most perversely of all it led to the cancellation of a comedy show on the theme of freedom of speech at Goldsmith’s College London by the feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite because she once said that that men who go with prostitutes should be arrested (this makes here “whorephobic”) and that Muslim women should not be forced to wear Burkhas (Islamophobic).

Whatever happened to debate, to persuasion, to the challenging of ideas we oppose?






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