Eighth Amendment - Respect for process and democracy

CORA SHERLOCK, a spokeswoman for the Pro Life Campaign, has attacked the Citizens’ Assembly on the Constitution, saying it is clear that its purpose is to facilitate a referendum with a view to removing the constitutional ban on abortion.

Adopted in 1983, the Eighth Amendment acknowledges the right to life of the unborn while having “due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. A number of recent polls have shown that around two thirds of voters say they are in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment to allow for abortion in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormalities.

Earlier this month, the Dáil rejected legislation proposed by Independent TD Mick Wallace to permit abortion in such circumstances. The advice of the Attorney General remains that even a limited abortion regime would require a referendum.

The decision to hold a constitutional assembly has already been criticised by former justice minister Michael McDowell, who told the Seanad that the 100 people randomly selected to debate the constitutional issues, including abortion, would be “in no better position than 100 people chosen at a football match”.

That may well be true but that is the beauty of it. Indeed, as a barrister, Mr McDowell will have had lots of practice engaging with another group of randomly selected individuals — namely a jury.

However, Ms Sherlock has gone far beyond Mr McDowell’s criticisms. Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland and later to Pat Kenny on Newstalk radio, she said she believed the assembly is a pretend process with a pre-arranged outcome.

Ms Sherlock is perfectly entitled to put her pro-life arguments on record and it is important that a range of views are heard and listened to in relation to one of the most profound moral issues facing the country.

But it is a bit rich of her to attack the Citizens’ Assembly before it has even begun. Her verbal assault also reflects most unfairly on Supreme Court judge Mary Laffoy, who has been chosen by the Government to chair the assembly. Ms Sherlock said her criticism of the assembly was not one of Judge Laffoy, for whom she had huge respect. She has a strange way of showing it by suggesting that the judge would preside over a “pretend process”.

Judge Laffoy is an excellent choice to chair the assembly. She has shown herself to be knowledgeable, experienced, fearless, and staunchly independent both as a judge and during her tenure presiding over the commission of inquiry into child abuse.

Indeed, she showed her independence by resigning as chair of the Child Abuse Commission in 2003, declaring that the Department of Education had frustrated its work, “negated the guarantee of independence conferred on the commission and militated against it being able to perform its statutory functions”.

It is hard to imagine anyone less likely to preside over a “pretend process” than Judge Laffoy.


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