ALISON O'CONNOR: Credit where it’s due... and that’s to 99 members of Citizens’ Assembly

The 99 citizens who represent us all at the Citizens’ Assembly gather once again in Malahide in Co Dublin this weekend.

It’s interesting to note that as they meet for the third time to discuss the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution they are having their discussions in 2017, the year that marks the 50th anniversary of the UK Abortion Act.

There are surely few other pieces of legislation enacted in one country that have had such a profound effect on one gender in another country. The UK Act does not legalise abortion but allows a legal defence for carrying out the procedure.

It allows a termination to be carried out up to 24 weeks if two doctors agree there are medical grounds for it to take place.

At the last weekend meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly in January Dr Peter McParland, director of Fetal Maternal Medicine at the National Maternity Hospital Holles St, told the members there are 500 terminations in the UK every day, the vast majority of them less than 13 weeks.

Of the 185,824 abortions in 2015, UK figures show that 3,451 women gave Irish addresses.

Further details on the personal experience of those Irish women who travel to the UK for abortions, as well as the perspectives of those who provide them, will be heard by the Citizens’ Assembly because the citizens have made clear that this is information they want to hear.

The first two assembly weekends have progressed quite seamlessly and without any obvious rancour. The most interesting aspect came at the end of the last session after what the official timetable described as a “roundtable brainstorming” by members on what recommendations they may eventually put forward on the Eighth Amendment.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the first weekend was more of a fact-finding one where the current state of the law was outlined without an examination of the perceived advantages or disadvantages of the current regime.

On the most recent weekend they heard from two hospital consultants on foetal abnormalities (FFA) and a further two speakers on the legal issues surrounding FFA.

A further session examined the moral status of the unborn/foetus where two very different ethical perspectives were offered. Finally there was a session on how laws are made and changed.

At the beginning of this brainstorming session a slide had been put up with the heading: “Conversation Starters”. There were three questions:

1. Do you think a right to life of the unborn child should continue to be constitutionally protected in the same way as now?

2. Do you think that the X case and the 2013 Act make abortion lawfully available in Ireland in too many circumstances?

3. Do you think that abortion should be lawfully available in Ireland in more circumstances than is currently he case?

It was quite clear that in the room where the citizens were divided into 14 round tables, and had a trained facilitator to guide their discussions, there was a strong inclination towards either appealing or amending the Eighth Amendment.

As assembly chair Judge Mary Laffoy went from table to table, 10 of the 14 facilitators, said “No’ to question 1 and indicated the members at their table were in favour of liberalising our current regime. The two remaining tables did not clearly indicate a preference.

Question 2 referred to the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which, acting on a 1992 Supreme Court decision in the X case, legally gives a woman access to an abortion where there is a real and substantial risk to her life, including risk of suicide.

In response to that seven tables said “no” and there was neither a “yes” or a “no” answer given by any remaining tables.

However listening to the conveners at five of those remaining seven tables they appeared to be passing on views which implied members felt circumstances where abortion is made available should be expanded.

The responses to Question 3 made it even clearer that the status quo is not acceptable to members — nine of the 14 tables said “yes” that abortion should be lawfully available in Ireland in more circumstances and no table said “No”.

A number of the surrounding comments are worth repeating. At one table it was felt there was a little too much dwelling on fatal foetal abnormalities and a desire to hear about “wider, more normal cases”. Contraception and education was mentioned elsewhere, as was a desire to see more support for women in difficult circumstances.

There was a view expressed that the matter “should be between a woman and her medical practitioner” but there wasn’t unanimous agreement on that at the table in question.

At one table some members apparently felt it would be the correct thing to “leave things as they are in the Constitution but increase the focus on maternal healthcare” while another view was if there is to be change there would “have to be a discussion of the circumstances in which it would be permissible, for example fatal foetal abnormalities, the health of mother, and rape”. The rights of fathers was raised as an issue.

There were concerns about the availability of anti-natal screenings which can detect for Down Syndrome. These arose from the presentation made by Professor McParland, who had said there had been no baby born in Iceland with Down Syndrome in the last four years since screening was introduced.

Another convenor told the assembly there had been general agreement at their table there was a need for change but disagreement on the extent and level of that change.

Yet another said the citizens at his table had said “the one thing they wish to say is they wanted to feel they left here and had done some good”. So taken in the round the desire for change is clear among members but less clear is what sort of a legal regime would replace the Eighth Amendment.

It’s again worth putting these views in the context that the assembly members have requested to hear personal stories, either from women who simply did not wish or felt unable to progress with a pregnancy, to those who received a diagnosis of FFA.

This makes the feedback all the more interesting as these stories are bound to have an influence. They have also yet to hear from the advocacy groups from the pro and anti side of the abortion argument.

So it wasn’t altogether surprising to hear Judge Mary Laffoy say that owing to the large task ahead of them, and the long list of areas that the members wanted to explore, there would be an extra weekend needed to discuss the issue, making it a total of five weekends. As said previously the assembly members deserve a lot of credit from their fellow citizens.


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