Eighth Amendment: We’ve come a long way since 1983, but the journey continues

It is only right the people will have their say shortly, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Eighth Amendment: We’ve come a long way since 1983, but the journey continues

It is only right the people will have their say shortly, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Of all the things we heard, the phrase that stuck out was “the journey”.

For the 100-odd journalists, activists, and supporters of abortion reform gathered in the AV Room of Leinster House yesterday for the launch of the report by the committee on the Eighth Amendment, it was all about the journey.

We heard of the journey this country has taken since 1983 when the controversial amendment, which recognises the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child, was inserted into the Constitution.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith spoke of the Ireland of 1983 as being a dark place. “I remember the 1980s and I campaigned on the amendment. The 1980s were dark days for women in Ireland.

"We had the Kerry Babies, a 15-year-old dying at a grotto, and a woman dying in a hospital in Drogheda because she was refused treatment for cancer [because she was pregnant],” she said powerfully.

The Kerry Babies affair, which led to a tribunal, saw Joanne Hayes being wrongfully accused of being the mother of a baby with multiple stab wounds found in the sea off Slea Head — her own baby, which died soon after birth, had been buried on the family farm at Abbeydorney.

The 15-year-old who died was Ann Lovett, whose body was found at a Marian grotto in Granard, Co Longford. She had concealed her pregnancy from her family.

“We need to put an end to the shame and the stigma and the silence,” said Ms Smith.

Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone, chair of the committee, spoke of her own attitudes changing because of evidence given to the committee.

“The abortion pill and their prevalence was a new one on me. My level of ignorance was high on that one,” she said.

Other committee members said the evidence in relation to the pills and their increased usage was “a gamechanger” in terms of their final recommendations.

One was struck by the lack of divisiveness among normally adversarial politicians. Even Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte, who is pro-choice, felt sufficiently persuaded to lend her support and signature to the report.

In a respectful tone, Ms Smith said: “There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind. I see that as a positive.”

“That is a first,” quipped Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher, who was sitting in the front row having missed out on a seat at the top table.

Lisa Chambers, the impressive Fianna Fáil TD from Mayo, said she was moved by testimony from those who have felt the sharp end of the Eighth Amendment.“I was in the room that day and many people cried listening to the difficult testimony,” she said.

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly Fein said she was moved by testimony from those linked to the group Terminations for Medical Reasons, who gave evidence of having to use ice packs to keep the bodies of their dead babies cool when returning from the UK on the ferry.

The journey moves on to the Government to decide what happens next.

Senator Ronan Mullen, who co-wrote a dissenting minority report calling for retention of the Eighth, speaks during a protest by the Love Both project after the committee report publication.
Senator Ronan Mullen, who co-wrote a dissenting minority report calling for retention of the Eighth, speaks during a protest by the Love Both project after the committee report publication.

Ms Noone said the strength of the committee’s report is that it follows the work of the Citizens’ Assembly and is also a cross-party document. “This is a powerful tool for Government in terms of the direction from here,” she said.

In terms of a referendum, the politicians were adamant the public must be educated as to what is involved before any vote is held.

Ms Smith and Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan cautioned about the referendum being taken for granted, adding that it will be a fight to win it.

Others who remember 1983 say it is long since time the people had a chance to have their say on the matter.

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger said this milestone was only reached because of how the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum transpired. “This would not have happened without it,” she said.

While Rónán Mullen, Mattie McGrath, and Peter Fitzpatrick dissented from the committee majority, that was to be expected.

Starting out, expectations would have been for more, but credit is due to Ms Noone for steering the ship through choppy waters. The report is a credible piece of work based on the evidence heard by the committee and it is only right the people will have their say shortly.

The journey will continue.

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