Simon Harris defends decision to refer abortion debate to Citizens’ Assembly

Health Minister Simon Harris has defended the Government’s decision to refer the ongoing abortion debate to a Citizens’ Assembly.

The use of a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss the Eighth Amendment, which recognises the right to life of the unborn child, has been criticised by both sides of the debate.

The Irish Family Planning Association has said the assembly is “not sufficient to satisfy the State’s obligations under international human rights law,” while the Pro Life Campaign described it as “a pretend process with a pre-arranged outcome” that has been used for political reasons.

Speaking in Cork, Minister Harris denied the Citizens’ Assembly has been used as a political buffer for legislators.

“I don’t think politicians can ever be blamed for the outcome of a referendum, because every citizen obviously has a vote,” Minister Harris said.

“I think we have seen in the past, in relation to referenda, that there is a benefit — and we saw this in relation to the constitutional convention — in actually having an informed public debate, letting the citizens own that debate, letting the media cover that debate, and then we are all better informed citizens as to the options in relation to how we wish to proceed.

“I think we have shown good faith on this issue, remember those of us here were members of a government that dealt with generations of neglect of the X Case,” he said.

“In relation to the Eighth Amendment, it is an issue within the constitution, if it is to be changed it is a matter for the people and therefore I think it is appropriate that you would call upon a bunch of citizens to consider the issue, to consider it in full, debate it, and then make their proposals back to the Oireachtas.

“So the Oireachtas can’t in any way delegate its responsibility or reassign it anywhere else. Ultimately the Oireachtas will have to consider the issue, but we believe that having the Citizens’ Assembly consider it is good practice, and we have seen this in other areas already,” he said.

Minister Harris said that the first meeting of the Assembly is due to take place in two weeks’ time.

“I think it is important for all of us to recognise that this isn’t something in the gift of the Oireachtas, this is a matter for the Irish people. Ultimately if a question is to be put to the Irish people, I think that it makes sense that the question is explored and debated by citizens outside of the normal political discourse or the Punch and Judy of Dáil Éireann.”

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