THE starting gun was fired on an abortion referendum this week, likely to be held early next summer. Outside the Dáil, anti-abortion protesters gathered, singing ‘Ave Maria’ and holding placards, while, tomorrow, tens of thousands of people will take to the streets of Dublin in the sixth annual March for Choice.
Neither side will be at all happy. We have an Oireachtas committee considering the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly and due to report by the end of the year. But, waiting in the wings, we have a Cabinet (well, the majority Fine Gael part of it) that has no interest in putting to the people a referendum that suggests a serious liberalising of our abortion laws.
The people on tomorrow’s march will have had their hopes raised by those Citizens Assembly recommendations, not least by the possibility of general access to abortion up to 22 weeks into a pregnancy.
Meanwhile, the people protesting outside the gates of Leinster House, with their ‘Stop the Killing’ and ‘Keep the Eighth – Protect the Unborn’ signs, are determined to double down and resist any change.
The political truth, as things stand, is that neither the pro-choice nor anti-abortion side will end up happy, as FG government ministers, for personal and political reasons, will not back a referendum that goes beyond restrictive abortion laws. While ministers have concerns that the committee on the Eighth might go as far as recommending unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, this is unlikely.
The 22-member committee has gotten off to a good start, beginning its public sessions last week with the chair of the Citizens Assembly, Judge Mary Laffoy, and Sharon Finegan, who headed the assembly’s secretariat, explaining what went on there and why. This week, there was a well-chosen panel of legal experts. It might seem minor, but, given the emotionally charged subject matter, it is significant that the public discussions have been civilised so far, and agreement reached on which experts to invite and how the
questioning should be conducted.
This week, Fianna Fáil TD, Anne Rabbitte, much to the bemusement of her fellow committee members, said she did not think the committee would meet its end-of-year deadline. The reason for her colleague’s bemusement is that the Galway East TD has said nothing, either in private or public sessions, at the committee so far (in the words of one of her fellow members, she has said “not a squeal”.) As far as the chair, Catherine Noone, is concerned the deadline will be reached, even if it means sitting extra days.
Ms Noone has her work cut out for her. But she is doing well, especially as, in private session, she quite regularly hears the words ‘I want to record my dissent’ from Independent senator, Ronan Mullen, as agreement is reached on some matter or other.
Also in private session, she has dealt with the request, by Independent TD, Mattie McGrath, to show the committee an animated video on abortion by Anthony Levatino, a US doctor who used to perform the procedure. There was little appetite for this and Ms Noone suggested that he email it to members, who could watch it if they wished.
Not to be outdone, the Tipperary TD raised it in the public session, on Wednesday, and said he’d like if members could “at least look at it here in public’.
These two committee members are perhaps the most public in their total anti-abortion stance, although Fine Gael TD, Peter Fitzpatrick, is also firmly in their rank. His contribution, on Wednesday, was to read, somewhat awkwardly, from what was clearly a prepared statement, telling the committee of how a baby’s heart beats 21 days after conception, how, at week nine, a baby can “swallow, yawn, and suck”, and that 100,000 people are alive today as a result of the Eighth Amendment.
My point being that while these members wear their anti-abortion stance on their sleeve, others may have similar, although less-absolute views, while, on the pro-choice side, there is also a spectrum of views. When you go through the numbers, it is difficult to see how, even with the many who believe our abortion laws should be liberalised, a vote as liberal as abortion even up to 12 weeks would be recommended.
The way it is stacking up, the committee will likely end up recommending abortion be allowed in restrictive circumstances, possibly including fatal-foetal abnormality, incest, rape, and ‘grave risk’ to a woman’s mental health. This is no easy task for the parliamentary drafts people, who are already working on the possible wording of legislation, especially in the case of rape.
The evidence heard at the Citizens Assembly made clear that our legal system would make it virtually impossible to work out a situation where rape could be used as a reason for being granted an abortion.
Solidarity TD, Ruth Coppinger, told the Dáil, on Wednesday, that tomorrow’s march might well be the largest seen in this country.
For the people campaigning and “yearning for social change”, she said it is important they let the members of the committee on the Eighth know that they must “get with where public opinion is and catch up with it”.
The Taoiseach and Cabinet will be spooked by a massive turnout at tomorrow’s march, and a rising tide of anger that could reach a tumultuous crescendo in the months to come, if a conservative wording is decided for the referendum.
But too many Fine Gael Cabinet ministers believe politically that proposals on a more liberal abortion regime would not get past their parliamentary party, the Dáil, or a referendum. Many are also personally against it.
Ms Coppinger accused the Taoiseach of having had “more positions on abortion than coloured socks”.
But there is a logic to what he has been saying on abortion. He told the New York Times while he didn’t accept the unborn child should have equal rights to an adult woman, he didn’t share the view the baby in the womb, the foetus, should have no rights at all. He spoke of disagreeing with those who take the view human rights only begin after you’re born, “and that a child in the womb, with a beating heart, the ability to hear, the ability to feel pain, should have no rights whatsoever. I don’t agree with that.”
You don’t have to be an expert in joining the personal and political dots here, in terms of the Taoiseach’s approach, and to speculate that he, too, would favour only a liberalising of the law in very specific, named circumstances, and that it is this he would campaign for in a referendum. Members of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties are allowed to vote according to their conscience on this matter, which means, technically, that those on the Oireachtas committee are free to act as they would wish with regard to their recommendations. This might appear to favour more change to the law, but it just makes predicting the outcome all the more difficult.
Ultimately, it is impossible to imagine a situation where the Taoiseach and a significant number of his Cabinet members present a referendum to the people, but not campaign for it to be carried.
Practically, all the indicators are pointed towards change on the minimal end of the scale. This will enrage those thousands of marchers who take to the streets tomorrow.