4th May 2011
Lord Alton of Liverpool corresponds with 'Your Rights Right Now' lobby group
From Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool
London SW1A OPW
RE: Your Rights Now and Irish abortion laws
We corresponded recently about Ireland’s Universal Periodic Review and the organisation Your Rights Now which was formed to collect information from the public about the human rights situation in Ireland.
You will remember from my previous email that, while I – and, I hope, most onlookers – support and admire the efforts of Your Rights Now and the principles underpinning their work, I was disturbed to see that some radical propositions with regard to the abortion laws of Ireland were buried in the text of their submission to the United Nations.
It was this concern that led me to write to a number of the organisations listed by Your Rights Now as supporters of their report to alert them to the relevant section of the document.
I have since been contacted by supporters of Your Rights Now, some of whom have immediately disassociated themselves with any concealed attempt to use the report as a Trojan Horse to promote the ending of nascent human life as a human right.
Others have sought to defend the report on two grounds. 1: that the disclaimer at the beginning of the report allows organisations which are not in total agreement with all its proposals to support it; and, 2: that the report is not as radical as claimed, because it calls for the clarification – not abolition – of current abortion law.
I would like to respond to these points.
With regard to the first contention, an endorsement (as I have always understood it) denotes support. Certainly, the strong claim in the Your Rights Now website that “more than 100 organisations have already signed up to the report” surely indicates that said organisations are pleased with its contents. Its supporters respond to this point by claiming that the following disclaimer affords Your Rights Now the ability to claim the approval of institutions that may object strongly to some of its proposals:
“This report is endorsed by a broad range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions and civil society groups. All of the views expressed in the report do not necessarily reflect the policies and positions of each endorsing organisation.”
I am not convinced by this response. In my view, the statement “all of the views expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the policies and positions of each endorsing organisation” is the same as saying “organisations endorsing the report do not necessarily endorse it”. If this is the actual position, it should be made crystal clear. Certainly, where a morally contentious and highly contested ethical issue is at stake, organisations should be asked to consult their membership about whether they would wish to make a specific disclaimer at that point of the report Otherwise, those viewing the report – and, most critically, the United Nations themselves – will reasonably assume that the listed groups approve of the report’s recommendations.
In the absence of a clarification as to which parts of the report reflect the policies of which group, endorsees ought to be alert to the fact that their approval of the report as a whole implies support for its radically pro abortion stance. Those reading it will not be aware of which parts your organisation agrees or disagrees with. This begs a question as to which parts (if any) of the report readers should assume endorsees actually favour and, consequently, what purpose your endorsement actually serves.
To take an analogy, I highly doubt that, if this report contained a line recommending that we reinstitute slavery or the death penalty, organisations would feel they could be proximate to such reprehensible practices, even if the document were otherwise a wonderful reflection of that organisation’s policies.
The judgement as to whether this disclaimer is enough to distance those groups who disapprove of abortion from the recommendations of the report is a matter of conscience for those groups, but, in my view, due to its the sensitive ethical nature, it is a decision ought to be taken at executive or trustee level.
The judgement as to whether this disclaimer is enough to prevent those groups who purport not to hold a position on abortion from adopting one is equally important. Your Rights Now’s claim that “over 100 groups have already signed up to the report” would appear to have assumed a position for them; a position very strongly in favour.
Concerning the second point, I would like simply to quote the report:
“By restricting abortion, the State disproportionately interferes with women’s rights to health, privacy, life, freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment and non-discrimination.”
Here is not the place to debate the truth of this statement which I believe to be groundless and profoundly ideological. I quote it merely to illustrate the position of Your Rights Now draftsmen with regard to abortion. Restricting the killing of another human being is here described as an “interference” – a far from neutral statement. I feel, therefore, that it is reasonable to assert that any attempt to claim that Your Rights Now is anything other than a pro-abortion institution is disingenuous.
Take also the “recommendation” that “Ireland should immediately repeal the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act”.
This is the Act which still forms the basis upon which abortion remains illegal in Ireland. Repealing it removes restrictions on abortion. To those who argue that Your Rights Now calls for clarification as opposed to legalisation of abortion I would pose a question as to what they feel the abolition of legal restrictions on abortion would achieve if not permissible abortion?
I think that it is important to reemphasise this point. While the report’s supporters are right to claim that it suggests that the law should be clarified, it must be acknowledged that, by recommending the repeal of the 1861 Act, it also advocates for the removal of legal restrictions to abortion. Whether this is the result of careless drafting and clever manoeuvring is not for me to speculate. I would simply contend that there is no escaping the high degree to which this document favours the killing of children in the womb and, consequently, how important it is that those who oppose abortion in Ireland are aware of how dangerous it could be.
As a legislator in the UK Parliament I am acutely aware of the risk of being perceived as interfering in the politics of Ireland. However, as someone who proudly holds two passports – UK and Irish (as do my children) – I hope I will be forgiven for retaining an interest, especially in this area which has been a central concern of mine throughout my professional career. In any event, the debate in Northern Ireland will also be affected by this document.
All this said, I was initially reluctant to respond to those who took issue with my original email but I have done so because I fear that unless I respond to the arguments presented to me, and leave them unanswered, it might be assumed that I found those arguments persuasive.
(Professor the Lord Alton of Liverpool)
House of Lords,
London SW1A OPW
0207 219 3551