Citizens’ Assembly shows the way on abortion

The Oireachtas no longer has the excuse of saying it does not know the way forward on abortion after the Citizens’ Assembly delivered its judgments, writes Alison O’Connor.

Right back at ya. That’s what members of the Citizens’ Assembly have effectively said to our national politicians with the hugely significant decisions taken by them this weekend.

Much to the surprise of most, except possibly themselves, the majority of citizens voted, among other things, for abortion to be available in Ireland with no restrictions as to reasons.

The proposal that the assembly discuss the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was a massive cop out on the part of Taoiseach Enda Kenny. That being said, it made its way into being a highly valuable exercise in deliberative democracy.

It was fascinating to observe and it delivered results that showed a really high level of sophistication and engagement on the part of the citizen members.

At a time in Irish society when it feels as if nothing can be executed properly in our public life, the assembly has been a beacon of sorts, though the understandable cynicism with which it was originally viewed, means it did not receive the media coverage or attention it might otherwise have done.

It was run like clockwork by chairperson Ms Justice Mary Laffoy and secretary Sharon Finegan. At one point on Saturday, the lights and wifi failed just moments after the result of the first vote, which was highly significant, was announced.

It was an overwhelming 87% opting for article 40.3.3, also known as the Eighth Amendment, which acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, to not be retained in full in the Constitution.

The lights/wifi failure resulted in a delay of around 30 minutes. It felt slightly eerie, but, in hindsight, that seems an overreaction.

Opening this final weekend of discussion on the Eighth Amendment, Ms Justice Laffoy spoke to the members of the assembly about their discussions on “a topic that has at all times convulsed the nation”.

Observing the citizens in all their hours of deliberation, it was remarkable there never appeared to be anything other than full concentration and engagement. There were some vexed words between them on Saturday, as they discussed what they were voting on, and the briefings they had received, but in the overall scheme of things, this was minor and in contrast to the overall collegiality.

Given the complexity of what they were dealing with, involving everything from dry, dense legal argument, where no certainty at all exists, to the raw emotion of women telling their personal stories of termination, this was a tough task.

Over five weekends, they heard 25 experts and from 17 advocacy groups and representative organisations, both pro-and anti-abortion, while also discussing matters pertaining to the situation in Ireland relating to crisis pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, suicide in pregnancy, foetal abnormalities, the regimes that exist abroad, sex education, ethics, morals, freedom of choice, rape, how the medical profession is regulated.

On Saturday, that first ballot was quickly superseded by the outcome of the second, which showed 44% vote to repeal/delete Article 40.3.3 of Constitution, but 56% vote to replace/amend it.

This result shocked many on the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ side, who believed it was disastrous that a vote had been taken not to repeal. As events unfolded, the citizens showed considerable nous in subsequent votes.

As Ms Justice Laffoy reminded them yesterday: “What you have done is you have recommended that the Oireachtas would have exclusive power to make law on these issues.”

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly during a weekend long sitting being held in Malahide, Co Dublin. The majority of citizens voted, among other things, for abortion to be available in Ireland with no restrictions as to reasons.

So, that response so beloved of Enda Kenny to those who would ask for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment: “And what would you replace it with?”, now has a definitive answer, provided by the assembly.

For the pro-choice side it can be argued that this answer is “better” than repeal, in that what has been recommended is that it be replaced with a constitutional provision that explicitly gives the exclusive power to the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn, and any rights of the pregnant woman.

So, having made that quite remarkable recommendation, in the context of our history on reproductive matters, the citizens sat down on Sunday morning to consider what should be included in that legislation, and the reasons when abortion should be lawful in Ireland, as well as any gestational limits.

What was fascinating about that discussion is how incredibly liberal it appeared at times. It was hard to tell how prevalent those views were throughout the assembly, but once the result of the votes were in, it was abundantly clear and a shock to almost all present.

On socio-economic factors as a reason for abortion, which was only included on the ballot yesterday after the members requested it, the result was 72% in favour. Another very significant additional request in the ballot was a vote asking that a “distinction should not be drawn between the physical and mental health of the woman” and again just under three-quarters agreed with that.

Over the months, there were interesting backdrops to these monthly gatherings. The last occasion was the mass grave of the Tuam babies report, which added a definite edge to the personal stories heard that Saturday from women speaking of their experiences of the Eighth Amendment.

This weekend, it was the controversy over the siting and control of the national maternity hospital. The ultimate backdrop, though, is the Oireacthas Committee which will now consider the recommendations. Unsurprisingly, there have not been many moments of levity at these assembly gatherings.

However, there was one yesterday when a member asked that the TDs and senators on the Oireachtas Committee which will be dealing with the Assembly’s recommendations, should read all the documentation and the transcripts to ensure they are as well informed as the members.

“Test them, we don’t trust them,” he said to wry laughter.

There is so much cynicism abounding in our society at present; a growing sense that anything which has been organised/established by the Government ends up being so poorly handled as to be almost farcical. It is no coincidence that the controversy on the control of the new national maternity hospital had such traction now, following, for instance, the series of debacles engulfing the Gardaí. A tipping point of distrust has been reached.

It would be tragic if the immense work of this assembly is not given the respect it is due by the Oireachtas. They no longer have the excuse of saying they do not know the way forward.

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