Last weekend, the Citizen’s Assembly met for the third time to listen to experts and discuss the issues around the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. I watched some of the proceedings online. The presentations are still available on the website. The whole thing looks like a staff think-in for a big organisation. Each table has a facilitator, who stood up to speak for the table. It seems to have borrowed the whole set-up from the business world. It’s an interesting entity as a part of democratic process. I like the idea of consulting experts, looking at statistics and having an open, informed discussion about the issue of abortion and reproductive rights but I wish it was happening throughout society and not just in a hotel in Malahide. It’s hard not to see it as anything other than a delaying tactic from a government that does not want to call a referendum on abortion. In the article in the Irish Examiner “Credit where it’s due… and that’s to 99 members of Citizens’ Assembly” about where things stood after the first two meetings it sound very likely that the Assembly are going to recommend a referendum be held, though the terms of that referendum are still up for debate. But I looked at the small print on the Citizen Assembly’s website and it doesn’t seem like the government have to follow the recommendations of the Assembly. The final line on this page says: “the Government will provide in the Houses of the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the Assembly and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.” In short, don’t hold your breath waiting for a referendum.
The Irish government have a history of dragging their feet on around abortion. The only abortion referendum that I’ve voted on was the very confusing 2002 one when the government tried to overturn the results of the X case. You had to vote No to leave things as they were, and Yes to make things more restrictive. To confuse matters further Youth Defence came out for a No vote. They didn’t feel it went the wording went far enough because there was no mention of the protective of live for embryos before implantation. (In Irish law, life begins with implantation. That’s why the morning after pill is available though abortion is not.) The amendment was defeated by 51-49% but no legislation on the X case followed. It took 12 years and the death of Savita Halappanavar (and who knows how many other women) before the flawed Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill became law.
Savita’s family did us a great service in talking publicly about her unnecessary death, as did Amanda Mellet who took the case against the State to the UN Court of Human Rights, as did the women known as A, B and C who took the State to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. These public cases make it difficult for the government to ignore the concerns around reproductive rights. And the campaigners mean the public can’t ignore it either. Five years ago I knew nothing about the Eighth Amendment or how it restricted women’s bodily autonomy. Now everyone seems to have an opinion on it and that’s down to the amazing work of a whole host of campaigners, including many who campaigned against the Amendment when it was first proposed 34 years ago.
At the end of the summer, Una Mullally made a documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ Podcast called ‘The Year The Conversation Changed‘. It’s a really great listen and covers the massive shift in public perception around the Eighth Amendment in 2016. It covers everything from the Repeal jumpers, to Maser’s mural outside Project, to the Rose of Tralee getting political, and at least half a dozen other things that I’m forgetting because so much happened last year!
Things are changing. Attitudes towards abortion are not the same as they were in 1983 when the Eighth Amendment was voted into the Constitution or even the same as they were in 2002 when we last had a referendum on abortion. The government is slowly catching up with that fact, but not quick enough. We need a referendum and it needs to call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. There should be no replacement and no rewording that makes it impossible to vote for. To reword it would be another delaying tactic. We need to repeal the Amendment because the constitution is not the place to define medical care. And again there are wonderful activists making that position clear. This time with the Strike 4 Repeal on March 8th. There will be no referendum set before then, the strike will definitely go ahead and it feels important to tell the government that there is an appetite for a referendum and that referendum should call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Change moves slowly in Ireland, at least at government level. Don’t forget it took them six weeks just to form a government last year. It’s like change isn’t useful to them. It’s not what they want. Our politicians would prefer to be eternally debating things and flinging insults at each other than actually take a political stand or making bold changes. The lack of action on the homelessness crisis and the continued existence of Direct Provision is shameful. Enda Kenny’s strongest stance recently has been to keep things as they are – of course he’s going to the White House for St. Patricks’ Day, it’s traditional. They are meant to represent us but they need a push in the right direction.
Change is happening, whether they like it or not.