The Citizens’ Assembly has spoken: We must repeal the 8th Amendment.

 

Over the past weekend the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland finished hearing testimony and voted on the issue of abortion. The results were surprisingly and emphatically pro-choice, and they represent a resounding success for this experiment with deliberative democracy.

Democracy was meant to be deliberative. The idea was that citizens, motivated not by selfish or sectarian drives but by civic duty, would discuss the issues facing their society with a view to arriving at the best possible outcome for everybody. They were to aim for consensus and fairness in all deliberations. That was then, of course, and this is now. Modern representative democracy has long given up the aim of consensus, even majority governments may only command the support of a small percentage of eligible voters, politics is unthinkable without political parties and the system of government and opposition is so entrenched that an opposition party that agrees with anything at all that a government says is seen as a failure.

In this context, those with an interest in democratic theory watched the establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly in the Republic with a mixture of curiosity and cynicism. The Assembly is a randomly selected group of 99 citizens selected to hear presentations from experts and interested parties on a given social issue, with a view to producing recommendations for legislation or other action by the Oireachtas (1). Abortion was the very first item on the agenda, and it looked suspiciously like another tactic by the Irish government to put that thorny issue on the long finger under the guise of action. If it was, it vastly underestimated the capacity and devotion of the members of the assembly.

Activists have been working tirelessly to repeal the 8th Amendment recently. More and more women are coming forward with their stories of abortion, of how the 8th Amendment means that their country has failed them (2), and the huge marches (3) and strikes (4) that have been organised across the island make it clear that this movement is growing and gaining momentum. Activists in Northern Ireland are equally devoted to campaigning for a change in our laws, and the level of cross-border cooperation has been heartening. The vast majority of politicians on both sides of the border have studiously ignored this, often claiming that the majority are happy with the law as it stands. In Northern Ireland, where abortion is not constitutionally proscribed and the law could be changed by a simple vote in Stormont, politicians claim that their refusal to vote for a relaxation of the laws on even the so-called “hard cases” is simply reflective of public opinion (5). In the light of this weekend’s vote, that position is becoming harder and harder to defend.

The Assembly is not a copy of Ancient Greek democracy, nor could it ever be, but it shares a few basic premises, most significantly the principle that citizens should enter deliberations with the aim to achieve the best outcome for society generally, rather than to impose their own personal convictions. Members consistently complained when the testimony they heard was repetitive and emotional; they wanted helpful, fact-based and practical evidence. (6) In the face of a large number of submissions from religious organisations, members objected that they offered no solutions to what is undeniably a problem. There was confusion, too; many were concerned and unclear on the options presented to them once they voted to reject the 8th Amendment and had to vote on how to replace it. The vote the next day, however, showed that the citizens did not shrug their collective shoulders and accept what they were given; several changes to the original ballot options, additions and clarifications were made, including allowing abortion for socio-economic reasons, and insisting on parity of physical and mental health risks. The result was clear; the Citizens’ Assembly voted to repeal the 8th and to allow access to abortion with no restrictions as to reason. (7)

The results surprised most, even the most optimistic of abortion rights campaigners, but it probably surprised the Irish government most of all. That our bodily autonomy is subject to these kinds of deliberations at all is an unfortunate relic of a Constitution that reflected the most conservative, church-influenced elements of Irish society at the expense of all others. That is the reality that generations of women have lived with, the knowledge that our bodies, when pregnant, are not ours to control. Our fellow citizens have played a part in helping to tackle that monstrous reality, and shown at the same time what all citizens are capable of when entrusted with a serious civic duty. It is a capacity we would do well to foster and encourage.

The tide is turning, at last. The Irish government must now call a referendum on the 8th Amendment. Politicians in Northern Ireland – particularly Unionist politicians – must watch closely, for the same changes are on the way here, and resistance makes the prospect of Irish unity more and more feasible for strategic unionists. This is not the time for activists to relax, however, if anything it is a time for renewed pressure. And when a referendum is called or a vote takes place in Stormont, we must make sure that the narrative is focused on the facts and solution oriented. The citizens of Ireland have shown us the direction we must take, and change will come from the bottom up.

1: https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/

2: http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/susan-cahill-my-abortion-was-not-remotely-traumatic-i-have-no-regrets-1.2542740

3: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/thousands-taking-part-in-pro-choice-rally-in-dublin-1.2804559

4: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/irish-women-abortion-ban-strike-international-day-2017-republic-ireland-consitutional-amendment-a7617461.html

5: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-35546399

6: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/citizens-assembly-criticises-calibre-of-submissions-on-abortion-1.2964137

7: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/ireland-citizens-assembly-votes-amend-not-repeal-eighth-amendment-constitution-abortion-laws-a7696996.html

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  • the rich get richer

    Who Picked the Representatives in the Citizens Assembly………………….

  • Jeremy Cooke

    Can we apply the same model to, say: Ardoyne Parade; ILA; Legacy deaths, etc? The politicians have failed miserably so time to try another approach.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    Randomly selected by a polling company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_Assembly_(Ireland)

  • hgreen

    Hopefully another step towards driving the Church out of Irish constitutional affairs.

  • George

    “That our bodily autonomy is subject to these kinds of deliberations at all is an unfortunate relic of a Constitution that reflected the most conservative, church-influenced elements of Irish society at the expense of all others.”

    That’s a bit lazy in my view and is often said to hide a rather unpleasant reality. The 8th Amendment was only added in 1983 after a 66.9% vote in favour – higher than the recent vote for marriage equality. It was added because the courts with a fundamental rights constitution like Ireland’s could easily have gone down the Roe v Wade route. The idea of banning all kinds of abortion was not forced upon Irish society, it was its view in Post JP II visit 80s Ireland. Unless we live on a planet where inside every conservative there’s a liberal trying to get out.

    It’s the Irish society that was conservative, not the constitution per se as it is a living document. For example, the same”relic of a constitution” is how we got the ban on contraception lifted when the politicians wouldn’t touch the issue with a barge pole.

  • Jag

    Which political party in the South supports abortion on demand/request?

    Not FG. Not FF. Not SF. Together, they control 75% of the seats in the Dail. Most of the smaller parties and Independents (not all) do support abortion on demand.

    Following the conclusion of deliberations of the Citizens Assembly, there will be a special Dail committee, the composition of which will reflect the parties’ size in the Dail, and that Committee will consider how the Citizens Assembly recommendations will be implemented. But, with 75% opposed to abortion on demand, can anyone see that Committee doing anything other than “watering down” the Citizens Assembly.

  • hgreen

    Ireland was a very different country in 1983 than it is today. You needed a prescription to get a condom. Thankfully Ireland is a much more liberal secular society today.

  • Anon Anon

    Abortion is not simply a matter of “bodily autonomy” and the attempt to deny the moral component is counterproductive.

    In the case of a miscarriage people will often talk about “losing the baby”; the sense of loss is profound. Whether a life is life cannot be a choice if we are to remain any sort of moral consistency.

    Secondly, if the mother decided that she wants to keep the child, talk will quickly turn to the father’s need to pay towards the cost of the care; societal pressure dictates he should be involved in the child’s upbringing, whether he wants to or not. As soon as the mother makes her choice, there is a recognition that it took two people to make the life. But not, apparently, before.

    Abortion remains a difficult issue and it does not need religion to generate emotional views. Irish law has been clearly demonstrated as not fit for purpose the last few years, but the pushing for abortion on demand as a right alienates support for change.

  • murdockp

    Do I personally agree with abortion. No.

    Do I agree that women should have the right to chose to have an abortion. Yes, absolutely.

    This is were the bigger question is are you a liberal democracy or a quasi religious state.

    I think that if parties like the SDLP just dropped any views on the matter they would do far better at the polls. I cannot vote for them or any party which pushes a particular strand of religion, freedom of choice is very important to liberals like myself.

    The matter should be one of personal choice within a broad framework of rules set be the state that are practical.

    Penalising / criminalising / driving vulnerable women overseas to seek medical treatment is not dealing with the issue at hand especially when the fathers can side step their responsibilities without consequence, hardly fair.

    I think political parties can take a neutral position on this without impacting their principles. Simply stating it is a matter for personal choice seems to me to be sensible. i.e. let the electorate decide democratically.

    Freedom from religion is as important a right as freedom to practice religion.

  • Roger

    Whatever one’s views, the idea that a policy saying a human being during gestation has human rights too doesn’t strike me as a religious or sectarian idea. Do you know any atheist who is ‘pro-life’?

  • Roger

    The South…I think the Healy/Raes are against it.

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    The so called Citizens Assembly has all the credibility of the Wannsee Conference. It’s about as far removed from democracy as you could get. It was set up with a pre-determined outcome, carefully controlled and manipulated to suit Fine Gael purposes. What a horrific way to determine human rights. This one is disabled so he can be killed; this one’s a girl, she can die, this one is poor, abortion for her. I don’t believe people will vote to repeal the 8th amendment which has saved thousands of lives over the years. But we’ll have to endure a barrage of pro-choice and anti-Catholic nonsense in the next year.

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    Do I personally agree with rape. No.

    Do I agree that men should have to right to chose to rape….

    Your position is illogical. It’s not quasi religious, it’s basic human rights.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    It doesn’t agree with what I think so therefore it must be illegitimate

  • Christopher Mc Camley

    In a democracy the demos decide things – not this stage managed group. Farcical.

  • Jim M

    Indeed. I know a couple of atheists who are pro-life. I’m pretty much atheist and pro-choice, but it annoys me how the pro-choice lobby loves to mischaracterise pro-lifers as either religious zealots or misogynists.

  • Jim M

    I’m in favour of legalising abortion on demand in the first trimester (after mandatory one-off counselling to try to ensure it’s what the woman really wants), and abortion in cases of FFA or severe abnormalities that would result in very reduced quality of life. Unfortunately the position I see advocated by the pro choice lobby is ‘a woman has an unalienable right to terminate a pregnancy at any time and for any reason, and if you say otherwise you’re a misogynist or a deluded religious fanatic. Oh, and if you’re a man you shouldn’t have an opinion at all, unless you’re an ‘ally”.

  • hgreen

    However saying those rights over ride the rights of the mother absolutely does strike me as a religious idea.

  • Korhomme

    The citizens didn’t vote to repeal the 8th, rather they voted to amend it, to grant the Oireachtas, the Legislature, the power to legislate on abortion.

  • Fear Éireannach

    No laws #trustpeople

  • Elaine

    They haven’t decided to change the law, they have recommended that the government call a referendum – at which point the demos will get to decide.
    And the idea that Fine Gael are pushing a pro choice agenda is truly farcical.

  • Elaine

    Yes and in the second ballot they specified what they believed those laws should be – they mainly pertained to gestational age rather than to the reason for the abortion.

  • Elaine

    I don’t see any reason why not, in fact I think it can be very constructive. The big hurdle would be getting all players to trust and respect the process.

  • Elaine

    I wasn’t calling the constitution a relic, very clearly I was saying that the ban on abortion is the relic of a constitution that is conservative and religious in ethos. My whole argument is that this is not the kind of thing that belongs in a constitution which is (while also being a “living document”) also difficult and slow to change. Most other countries do not legislate for such matters by putting them in the constitution. And I know it wasn’t forced, but 1983 was a long time ago. None of the people who voted in that referendum are still fertile and liable to need an abortion. Things need to change as the country has changed.

  • Korhomme

    If I’m understanding correctly, it’s in the Constitution because of the potential of the Bourne case in England in the 1930s, and Roe v Wade in the US, where the courts had found a ‘work-around’.

  • Philip Murphy

    OMG….FG absolutely did not want nor anticipate such a liberal conclusion being drawn by the PA.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    And the representatives or delegates of the Demos can be selected in more ways than a simple vote.

  • grumpy oul man

    Yes, I am pro life and a atheist. I am also for a women’s right to choose and like yourself and Christopher i am a male, so i will never have to make this call and never get pregnant because i was raped, or be deserted by the father of the child, or have my life or career ruined (mine not the fathers) over one mistake.
    It is possible to be pro life and pro choice,

  • Jeremy Cooke

    We couldn’t have the same nonsense that’s going on now in the Oireachtas where the parties are trying to sabotage the Assembly – they have to accept, or have imposed on them, the reality that they have abrogated the decision and it will be implemented with or without their support.

  • Roger

    In context of abortion debate, I don’t think you view on what “pro life” means is correct. It’s short hand for not being ‘pro choice’.

    For simplicity we use those terms. But they are useless if attributed the meaning you suggest. You are not pro life. You are pro choice.

  • grumpy oul man

    I understand stand what the anti choice use it for and claim that it defines their ethos.
    However many of those who claim that the foetus has a overriding right to life (the Christian right for example) over the rights of the mother are the same people who would not allow child refugees whose life is endangered and are vunlerable to exploitation and abuse a safe haven in the west.
    Or support policy’s which reduce welfare payments and access to health and education for the poorest children in the community.
    So excuse me if I don’t play along with the anti choice lobby ,if they were really “pro life” and so concerned about children they wouldn’t treat those born the way they do.

  • Roger

    I don’t feel strongly about the terminology. Pro Choice v Pro Life. They seem about equal to me. Each has its pros and cons. We could invent new terminology but unless it is very wordy no doubt it will be subject to the same sort of criticism.
    Remember the foetus has no choice but I still think Pro Choice is well enough understood.