Citizens' assembly conclusions 'fair, balanced and neutral' says chair

The chair of the citizens' assembly has warned politicians any changes to the eighth amendment risk facing immediate High Court challenge unless they are based on stand-alone new laws instead of only altering the constitution, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Political Correspondent.

Justice Mary Laffoy made the comment as she separately described the assembly's wide-reaching conclusions as "fair, balanced and neutral", and rejected claims some of those who took part were "misled" in favour of a "liberal" response to the issue.

Rosa (For Reproductive Rights Against Opression, Sexism & Austerity) campaigners dressed as Handmaids during a lobby for Pro Choice at Leinster House, Dublin following the start of The Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Ammendment Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Speaking during the first public meeting of the cross-party Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment, which is tasked with making recommendations to Government on a potential referendum next summer, Ms Laffoy said TDs and senators must take responsibility for what happens next.

Citing the clear recommendation of the assembly last April, she said the body has called for article 40.3.3 of the constitution to be repealed and replaced with stand-alone legislation from the Oireachtas.

Ms Laffoy said this is not the same as repealing the article and drawing up a replacement line in the constitution, and that the recommendation from the assembly was for the repeal and Oireachtas legislation move to be voted on in a referendum.

Justice Mary Laffoy

She said if the Oireachtas repealed the article and replaced it with an amended line in the constitution instead of drawing up stand-alone legislation on the issue, it would leave the decision open to immediate constitutional High Court challenge.

"I think the matter is quite clear. They did have advice that there might be uncertainties [if any changes are based on amending the line in the constitution without stand-alone legislation].

"They wanted the matter of termination decided by legislation and in the constitution," Ms Laffoy told Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger, a view she repeated to Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Billy Kelleher, and Labour's Jan O'Sullivan.

Ms Laffoy later told Independent senator Lynn Ruane that "if the Oireachtas did not draw up legislation that could force a High Court legal challenge", before adding to Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer:

"The clearest approach would be to repeal article 40.3.3 of the constitution and give the Oireachtas the power to legislate. I may be wrong, but I think it would bring the most certainty."

During the same two-hour meeting Ms Laffoy also defended the assembly's wide-reaching recommendations, which included a call for free, unrestricted access to abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Asked by senator Ronan Mullen if there was any discussion at the assembly of the "very obvious reality of how thousands of lives have been saved" by the eighth amendment, Ms Laffoy said the assembly was "fair and balanced" and at all times based on legal and medical facts.

Ms Laffoy said under questioning from Mr Mullen - who, like Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick, said he found the assembly's recommendations "disturbing" - that one case of lobbying was alleged within the assembly.

However, she stressed this was not proven, was in the significant minority and that in her view "nothing was hidden" from assembly members and that the body "did not mislead the citizens, and was not responsible for a liberal approach".

Ms Laffoy also raised serious concerns over the increasing use of online abortion pills by Irish women, saying the trend must be examined to ensure no one is putting their lives at risk.

Ms Laffoy said in hindsight the citizens' assembly "didn't cover sufficiently" the growing use of abortion pills sold online as a cheaper alternative to travelling to Britain, the Netherlands or other countries with more liberal abortion laws.

Citing HSE statistics published after the assembly concluded its discussions on the eighth amendment which show a growth in the use of the pills - an issue pro-choice campaigners say is because women are left with few if any other options - Ms Laffoy said she has genuine "concerns" over the situation.

Rosa (For Reproductive Rights Against Opression, Sexism & Austerity) campaigners dressed as Handmaids during a lobby for Pro Choice at Leinster House, Dublin following the start of The Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Ammendment Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

"I think one thing we didn't cover sufficiently was [the online sale of] abortion pills. Research research shows people are making contact with online abortion pill companies.

"I think that is a factor you should look at. That's something that concerns me," Ms Laffoy said.

Earlier this year, the HSE reported that the number of women travelling abroad for abortions had reduced in part because of the growth in sales of online abortion pills which can be taken at home but limit the amount of medical checks when there are complications.

In response to the comments, eighth amendment committee chair and Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone said the issue will be examined by the cross-party group in the coming weeks during its discussions with abortion issue expects.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil health spokesperson Billy Kelleher has suggested an "education course" may be needed for the public before the abortion referendum next June or July due to the complexity of the issues involved.

Mr Kelleher said the information campaign may be needed as it will be difficult to "condense" the recommendations from the citizens' assembly - and their legal and medical implications - into simple messages, increasing the risk of polarised messages being aired.

Wednesday's meeting also heard Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell ask a number of pointed questions over the alleged failure of governments over recent decades to provide proper information on the abortion issue.

Asking if the assembly's recommendations were needed because "the issue has been so lacking" and if "we have a duty as a Government to legislate", Ms Laffoy responded:

"I'm not going to tell the Government what to do. I was given a particular job."

The cross-party Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment met for the first time in public session yesterday as rival pro-choice and pro-life protests took place outside the gates of Leinster House, indicating the growing division over the issue.

Eight of the 21 committee members have so far refused to express a public view on the issue, in part because of the potential damage any view could pose to their future election prospects.


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