Deep divisions hamper abortion committee

As Judge Mary Laffoy gets ready to present her report on the Citizens’ Assembly, Alison O’Connor says we are in for a tortuous few months before we get to vote on the issue.

Photo: Pro-choice and anti-abortion protesters clash on O’Connell Bridge, Dublin, in April 1992 following the X Case, which led to the November 1992 referendum in which the electorate voted to allow the right to information about abortion and the right to travel for an abortion, and rejected an amendment saying suicide was not grounds for abortion. A new referendum on abortion has been suggested for next year. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THIS week, Judge Mary Laffoy will deliver her report to the Government on the conclusions of the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of the eighth amendment to the Constitution.

On one level, we are fully aware of what it is the 100 members who made up the Citizens’ Assembly want, because they voted on it, causing ripples of shock throughout the country, back in April.

However, that’s not to say Judge Laffoy may not include a few surprises herself, or that there won’t be more from the citizens themselves, who were also asked to privately draw up suggestions that would accompany their votes.

We don’t know but these could credibly range from anything from a need for more education on contraception to whether Irish abortions might take place in a maternity hospital or a separate standalone clinic.

The citizens also heard a lot about how the abortion pill is changing the termination landscape; that, despite its illegality, between January 2010 and December 2015, 5,650 women from the island of Ireland consulted the Women on Web website, which supplies the abortion pill. Might there be a suggestion that should be legalised?

Judge Mary Laffoy at the Citizens’ Assembly
Judge Mary Laffoy at the Citizens’ Assembly

The contentious amendment was inserted into the Constitution in 1983 and guarantees to protect the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.

We’ll never know, but it’s difficult to imagine how Judge Laffoy could have anything but mixed feelings as she hands over the report to the joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution — a group that is as big as it is ungainly, that is hugely divided before it even begins its work, and where no one appears to have a real clue as to how things might end up. Or, if they do, they are not saying.

Based on the Assembly report, their job is to examine possible referendum wordings, and the legislative options outlining the circumstances in which abortion could be allowed. Judge Laffoy is due to appear before an early meeting of the committee.

What we already know is that we are going to have an abortion referendum next year. What happens between this and then is, without doubt going to be rather tortuous.

The committee held its first meeting last week. The word is that, minutes before it was due to start, a call came through to Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone that she was to be its chair.

Up to that point, everyone had believed it would be Fine Gale senator Jerry Buttimer, who has done a fine job of chairing the Oireachtas committee that held hearings on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill four years ago.

The last-minute change was seen as a move by a new Taoiseach stung by criticism over gender balance in his Cabinet. Ms Noone, who has said that she is moderately pro-choice, may well do an excellent job, but she is faced with a very large and polarised committee of 21 members.

Apparently at that first meeting she had the very able and very conservative senator Ronan Mullen attempting to run rings around her, not least with suggestions that a letter of censure be sent to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for having the temerity to have already said there would be a referendum.

Ms Noone has to juggle, for instance, the beliefs of the likes of Mr Mullen and Independent TD Mattie McGrath on one side and pro-choice committee members Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger and Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell, whose take on abortion is “as early as possible and as late as necessary”.

The committee is considered to have a majority in favour of liberalising in some shape the State’s strict abortion laws. Between them, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail do have a majority. In time the Government will make known a position to its TDs and senators — as is the way of these things.

However, neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil members are subject to a party whip here so they are allowed to vote with their conscience. Thus, there is no guarantee of an outcome, especially as there are very different views even within each party grouping.

There are a significant number who did not even want to be on the committee in the first place. They believe it to be a poisoned chalice that will bring serious abuse down on their heads, not just from those who are anti-abortion but also those involved in the Repeal the 8th campaign. Social media has brought the potential for this to new heights.

The committee will begin public hearings in September, when the clock officially starts on its three-month deadline to make recommendations and come up with draft legislation around proposed wording for a referendum.

Over its five weekends of discussion on this, the members of the Citizens’ Assembly heard from 25 experts and from 17 advocacy groups and representative organisations, putting in almost 90 hours in the process. All of that is available to be viewed or read online. The Assembly also received 13,500 submissions from the public.

It would be utterly daft if the committee attempts to reinvent those particular wheels.

Deep divisions hamper abortion committee

But even if just a few witnesses are to be invited there is likely to be skin and hair flying, with both sides crying “foul” at every turn on who they should be. Should whatever witnesses are called have to endure being questioned by all 21 members, for example?

The Citizens’ Assembly voted by a resounding majority of 87% that the eighth amendment had to go; after that they proceeded to vote on the availability of abortion in the State in a range of circumstances, surprisingly liberal, which would mean significant change to the regime as it currently exists in relation to pregnancy termination.

The members voted that the eighth amendment be replaced with a constitutional provision that gives power to the Oireachtas to legislate to address abortion, “any rights of the unborn and any rights of the pregnant woman”.

Having heard and digested the legal submissions the assembly members, it would appear, wanted to ensure that abortion legislation would be safe from constitutional challenge.

This is what they wanted to hand over to legislators — the responsibility for passing abortion law. It’s impossible to predict what will occur at this committee, where both sides are in their trenches looking across from each other, with some in the middle.

The 99 citizens were representative of the census, with the youngest at 20 and the eldest in their 70s, and an even gender spread. Initially they were indeed representative of the general population. But they no longer are. To use that awful phrase, they went on “a journey” and, having carried out their task so assiduously on all our behalves, they came to the conclusions that they did.

It is the job now of the committee to attempt to do similarly, to understand how they reached those conclusions, to hear and understand the evidence, and then make their own decisions.

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