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.