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Row over NI Human Rights Festival anti-abortion debate

By Claire Williamson

Published 24/11/2016

The debate is set to take place in December
The debate is set to take place in December

An anti-abortion debate included in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival has sparked a row - prompting the resignation of the chair of the festival's organising group.

Belfast Feminist Network's chairwoman Liz Nelson has resigned as chairwoman of the festival's organising group at the decision.

Both Lives Matter who helped set up the debate which will take place in December said it was surprised and disappointed at the row.

Belfast Feminist Network said the event will "promote the criminalisation of women who have abortions".

"Our representative on the board of the Human Rights Consortium raised objections and argued for its exclusion on the grounds that the event will promote the criminalisation of women who have abortions which directly conflicts with international human rights standards.

"On considering the board's majority decision to include the event, BFN's representative resigned her position as chair."

Both Lives Matter told the BBC that they would not be protesting pro-choice events at the festival.

"Shutting down debate is contrary to some of the most basic human rights such as freedom of thought, conscience, expression and speech."

The majority to include the Both Lives Matter event was taken by the annual festival's organisers - The Human Rights Consortium.

In a statement the festival's board defended the inclusion of the event.

It said: "The Board of the Human Rights Consortium understand that the inclusion of this event in the 2016 Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival may be unwelcome and potentially displeasing to some groups and individuals.

"However, the festival was established to increase discussion and engagement about human rights in Northern Ireland, with the hope that open dialogue could perhaps create greater awareness of rights, a vehicle for constructively critiquing positions and perhaps even open up some ground for exploring common ground where feasible.

"While that is always going to be difficult between groups with diametrically opposing viewpoint, we believe that the festival is a place for different human rights arguments to be made and considered, even on the most contested subjects.

Finally we must be clear that inclusion in the festival programme of particular views, events, speakers or participants does not constitute an endorsement by the Consortium or reflect the Consortium's own views opinions or positiions."

Stormont has been under increasing pressure to change its current stance on abortion, which is only available in hospitals here if there is a direct threat to the mother's life.

More than 830 women travelled to English hospitals and clinics from here in 2015 to have terminations, all of whom had to raise the money to pay for the procedure themselves.

Women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free NHS abortions in England which is currently being challenged at the Supreme Court.

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