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Irish politicians leave abortion to the people

Gavan Reilly
January 26, 2017

Ireland's politicians have asked a panel of 99 citizens to examine one of its most contentious topics: abortion. But not everyone relishes the idea. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.

A statue of trade unionist Jim Larkin with his hands gestutring for people to rise stands in front of Dublin's main post office
Image: picture alliance / Bildagentur-online/AGF/G. Masci

Ireland's 2015 vote in favor of gay marriage marked the culmination of a historic and unprecedented process - of a stereotypically conservative, Catholic country becoming the first in the world to sanction gay marriage through a popular vote. It was also the climax of a novel political experiment - public vindication of a call by a 100-member "constitutional convention," comprised mostly of randomly chosen citizens.

"I think it helped to concentrate the mind of the political leaderships to the fact that there was a call out there for the change," says David Farrell, a politics professor at University College Dublin. "It helped to frame how the discussion was going to unfold … it helped to take party politics out of the discussion."

That convention was born from a political compromise between liberal and conservative wings of Ireland's last government. Handing responsibility to an outside body allowed the liberal wing to claim credit, and the conservative wing to wash its hands of responsibility. But however politically convenient, the system worked - and the same template is now being used for an even more emotive topic: Ireland's longstanding near-blanket ban on abortion.

Taking decisions out of politicians' hands

That ban was introduced via referendum in 1983, sparked by public campaigns in response to the US ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. This Eighth Amendment (latterly known simply as "the 8th") was intended as a total ban on terminations, though in 1992 the Supreme Court said they were still permitted if the woman's life was at risk, including through suicide. The debate has continued in the decades since, with sustained calls for another referendum to "Repeal the 8th." The topic is now in the hands of a 'Citizens' Assembly' of 99 randomly chosen citizens and chaired by a Supreme Court judge.

Pro-choice protesters in Dublin
The abortion debate has continued in IrelandImage: picture alliance/CITYPRESS 24/A. Widak

Farrell is a firm supporter of the novel idea of taking major political decisions out of the hands of politicians, and acts as a researcher for the new body. "I think it's giving the politicians the opportunity to observe what an ordinary group, a random selection of ordinary citizens, are able to come forward with," he argues.

Not everyone is supportive, however. Where the assembly is concerned, pro-life and pro-choice campaigners find themselves on the same side - labeling the assembly an unnecessary stop on an already lengthy journey.

"We see it as a stalling tactic," says Linda Kavanagh, a spokesperson of the Abortion Rights Campaign. "Poll after poll has shown that a majority of Irish people want a broadening of access."

Kavanagh points out that the assembly process is scheduled to take almost a full year, after which the Irish parliament will still have to consider the findings and pass enabling legislation to allow any referendum. In that year, "4,000 women will travel to the UK to get an abortion, and that happens every year," Kavanagh says, concluding that the assembly exists only to create further obstacles to a referendum.

Her suspicion of the assembly model is shared by pro-life campaigners like David Quinn, director of the Iona Institute, a Christian advocacy group: "I think the citizens' assembly is essentially window dressing. The idea that 100 people, chosen randomly by a polling company, is in any way representative of the public is ridiculous."

A woman holds a sign calling for abortion to remain illegal
Abortion is only permitted in Ireland if the mother's life is in dangerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Muhly

Quinn contends that the assembly exists simply so that Fine Gael, the dominant conservative party in Ireland's government, can hold a referendum but "make it look like it's not their decision to have a referendum on it - that it's the people's decision."

Enthusiastic public response

Their cynicism does not seem to be matched by the general public. More than 13,000 public submissions were made before the mid-December deadline, and extra discussions have been scheduled to sift through the issues raised. Already, though, a trend is emerging: At just its second meeting, a majority of members already seemed to be leaning towards recommending a new vote to ease the current restrictions.

If a referendum is sought, the government has pledged to hold it in the first half of 2018. Kavanagh is confident the Irish public would favor relaxing the current restrictions. "We know the whole country - the thousands of people who get polled here and there - that people want a broadening of access. They're not happy to leave people unequal and to leave people without healthcare, or allow women to get sick or die, even, because of these laws."

People celebrate in Dublin Castle as the results of the same-sex marriage referendum are announced on May 23, 2015
More than 62 percent voted in favor of same-sex marriage, 37.7 percent were opposedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Crawley

But the passage of a referendum is not a fait accompli. The 2015 referendum on gay marriage turned out much closer than opinion polls first predicted. And if the Eighth was intended as a blanket ban on abortion, removing it might be interpreted as creating a permissive system that many voters could reject.

For this reason Quinn believes the result is not yet clear-cut. He says a referendum will pass if the Irish public believes it's voting only to allow abortion in sympathetic cases like rape, incest or where the fetus will not survive beyond birth. But he believes the referendum could easily be defeated "if people thought we were voting for something which would lead to a British-style law, which would be far more permissive ... So it would depend on what people think they're voting for."

For political analysts the citizens' assembly is a novel and intriguing forum for delicate issues to be given an apolitical hearing.

Farrell says he is frequently asked to speak to overseas audiences about its merits. But it appears to campaigners that the result of the assembly is pre-determined - and that the novelty is simply a means to an end.