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Rubicon crossed in Ireland's abortion debate

The Citizens’ Assembly, set up to examine Ireland’s abortion law, has made more radical suggestions than many would expect. But political attitudes may see the report fall on deaf ears. Gavan Reilly reports from Dublin.

There was almost a shocked silence in the room at the Grand Hotel in Malahide on the north side of Dublin when the result was announced. All day long, the members of the Citizens' Assembly had been casting their verdicts on a series of hypothetical scenarios surrounding pregnancy, and whether an abortion should be allowed in those cases. What, for example, if the woman became pregnant through incest? What if the fetus had a serious abnormality, but one which will not limit its lifespan? What if the woman says she simply cannot afford a baby?

Read: Would you have an abortion if you knew your baby had Down syndrome?

But on the final blanket question - of whether abortion be available to all women, irrespective of their reasons - the result was striking and brought the room to a surprised hush. Almost three-fifths of those present said they would allow such abortions, at least up to 12 weeks of gestation. The supposed Rubicon of offering abortion on demand had been crossed, and even those who voted for it appeared shocked at the result.

34 years ago Ireland's voters adopted an intended total ban on abortion into its constitution. Now, a sample of its citizens found there was not a single circumstance in which abortion should be forbidden.

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Abortion debate in Ireland

Many onlookers were impressed at the depth to which the Assembly members seemed to dwell on the matters at hand, and the collected manner they did so. Ellen Coyne, a reporter with the Ireland edition of The London Times who sat through the Assembly's complete hearings, believe the Irish public are "fatigued by heated panel shows and political rows" that have run for over three decades.

The Assembly, she says, took a more refreshing approach. "You had a pro-choice young woman in her early twenties sharing a forum and a floor with staunchly pro-life men 20 years her senior," Coyne told DW. "Instead of descending into chaos, they managed to achieve in five months what 14 governments never have - a clear consensus on the issue of abortion."

Read: Irish politicians leave abortion to the people

Political headache

The Assembly's liberal findings pose a political headache for Ireland's lawmakers. The 99-member body was set up after the last general election as a political fudge, offering liberal voters an examination of a thorny topic, while mollifying conservatives with the assumption that the changes would be minor and slow-moving. Most expected the Assembly simply to recommend that abortion be available to victims of rape or incest, or where fetuses would not survive outside the womb. Few would have anticipated that a random sample of citizens, chosen to represent the demographics of the Irish public, could leap so far ahead of parliamentary opinion.

Supporters of the current constitutional ban take issue with how the decisions were arrived at. Cora Sherlock, a spokesperson of the Pro-Life Campaign, described the voting procedure as "utter chaos." "Take one example: the citizens were asked to vote on things. They were given information minutes before the vote. One asked a vote about time limits, and they were then told: a time limit of 22 weeks was chosen because after that, an injection of potassium chloride would have to be put into a baby's heart. They then voted, a couple of minutes later, without reflecting on that." (Other observers did not agree with the description of "chaos.")

Part of the dilemma now for populist lawmakers is that they cannot be entirely sure whether the wider public would share the views of the random 99 citizens chosen to take part. A TV poll conducted the day after the Assembly suggested 50 percent of voters supported its findings, with 33 percent opposed. A more comprehensive poll for the Irish Times last October found only 19 percent voters supporting abortion 'on demand,' compared to 64 percent of the assembly (though the poll respondents were not asked if an earlier cut-off point would be acceptable). The comparisons may be unfair, however, when the Citizens Assembly had the benefit of four weekends of testimony from legal and medical experts, from advocacy groups, and from women who themselves had an abortion. Few other citizens can claim the same.

Convoluted process

Irland - Abtreibungs-Debatte im irischen TV ( Irish Parliamentary TV)

Brid Smith, a pro-choice lawmaker, is concerned that the Assembly's findings will be diluted beyond recognition

But the question of public appetite might be sidelined by a simple reality: there are no guarantees that the findings will actually be implemented. The findings will first to go a special parliamentary committee which has six months to consider whether they are workable, and how (if at all) to put them into law. That committee's findings are then subject to review by the full parliament, which must depend on the government to finalize the wording of a constitutional referendum to undo the current constraints. Only if that passes can lawmakers start working on legislation to put the recommendations. The process will be fraught, and may take years to conclude.

Read: Amnesty urges Ireland to end abortion ban

Indeed, already there are indications that the Assembly's findings are a bridge too far. The parliament's two largest parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have both committed to giving their MPs a free vote on the matters that now follow. "The word on the street is that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are going to do their best to water down what the Citizens Assembly have recommended, so that it's not recognizable as the recommendations at all that came out," says Brid Smith, an ardently pro-choice lawmaker from People Before Profit. "They're shocked at what the Irish people are saying back to them. They're absolutely taken aback, and they don't want this."

The third largest party, Sinn Féin, says it will not be bound by the Assembly's verdict and will continue to pursue its own policy (which is more liberal than the present system, but less so than the Assembly proposals). It seems apparent that the fate of Ireland's abortion ban might well depend on the personal opinions of the politicians - and not the citizens who were singled out at random to point the way.

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