The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly may not be as far ahead of the public as politicians are claiming. But we also need legislation to prevent the covert use, and abuse, of personal data in the context of a referendum.
It was nothing more than a delaying tactic, of course, when the government referred the issue of abortion to the Citizen’s Assembly. But twenty years from now, it is likely to be seen as a defining moment. The reality is that Ireland’s abortion laws deny women who become pregnant their human rights in a number of different ways. And the disheartening truth is that, between them, the politicians gathered in Dáil Éireann didn’t have the guts to put this right.
Their first instinct was to play for time. And so they figured out a way that they could kick the can down the road.
Their second was to acquire a fig leaf for whatever action they might be shamed into taking in the long run. It worked in relation to the referendum on same sex marriage: that issue was referred to the Citizen’s Assembly, which then recommended changing the constitution to allow gay men and women to marry.
With that piece of paper to hide behind, all the government had to do was act like obedient little boys and girls. And if any troglodytes shouted ‘foul’, they could plead that they were only doing what a representative group of citizens had sought.
In relation to abortion, a fig leaf would be even more helpful. You can imagine the cuter hoors among our political class chuckling up their sleeves. It was a good wheeze alright. Let the Assembly tell us what to do – and sure aren’t we only following orders either way! Some may have actively wanted any notion that our abortion laws should be liberalised to be rebuffed. Well, if that was what they had in mind, they had another thing coming.
DILEMMA OF CHOOSING
That the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly stunned the slow-coaches in Leinster House is an understatement. All the evidence confirms that the 89 citizens who ended up voting on the issue took the process extremely seriously. They listened attentively to the evidence presented to them by various medical and legal experts. They also sat patiently through the arguments put forward by Repeal the Eighth activists and anti-choice campaigners alike. And they listened closely to the Chairperson of the Assembly, Justice Mary Laffoy.
They then delivered what amounted to a political bombshell. A significant majority of 64% were in favour of allowing abortion, without restriction as to reason, up to 12 weeks. There was an even greater majority in favour of the availability of abortion in cases of rape and incest, as well as fatal foetal abnormality (89%). In effect, what the Citizens’ Assembly recommended would bring Irish abortion laws more or less into line with best European practice.
While the final details would need to be teased out as to how these recommendations might be enshrined into Irish law, it was, and it remains, a victory for common sense, respect, tolerance, compassion and inclusiveness.
The anti-choice brigade – what Hot Press dubbed the Anti-Happiness League many years ago – have tried to sensationalise the recommendations as “abortion on demand.” It is a phrase which totally disrespects the reality of how women think of, and deal with, abortion. It creates an image of women laughing all the way to the clinic, thinking that this is great craic altogether, and sure what harm if I am back again in a few months time.
The truth, is that no one wants to be confronted, ever, with the dilemma of choosing to have, or not to have, an abortion. The decision is not one that is taken lightly. But it is often the only thing to do, and women know it. The vast majority of women who have abortions are happy in the long run that they made the right choice.
There are women who regret it. It would be stupid to pretend otherwise. But then there are also millions of women all over the world who desperately regret that they didn’t have an abortion or who suffer terribly as a result of a pregnancy which goes full term.
PITIFUL, DISHONEST STUFF
Clearly, the consensus reached by the Citizens’ Assembly was not what the political establishment wanted. They were hoping for staider recommendations – for example, allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and maybe rape – that would allow them to wring their hands and piously proceed, while still occupying some mythical, high moral ground.
They wanted an easy get-out clause. Look, we are moving an inch! But when they got common sense, they protested. They argued that the Assembly was ahead of the people. And they began the process of pussy-footing and ass-covering, their obvious fear of Mothers of Ten everywhere in stark evidence.
It is important not to get too personal about issues of this kind. But it is necessary to put on the record just how appalling it was to hear Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, describe himself as coming from a “pro-life” background – and then trot out a story about a woman he knew who was a product of rape who got very angry when people suggested that she was not entitled to a life.
This is truly pitiful, dishonest stuff. No one who is pro-choice says or believes that anyone is “not entitled to a life.” What they do say is that it is entirely up to the woman who becomes pregnant, by whatever means, to decide whether or not she wants to continue with the pregnancy. The unassailable truth is that every embryo’s life is in the gift of the woman who carries it. If she commits suicide, then no birth will occur. This is a stark but unassailable fact of life.
I was going to say here that there was a time when it was deemed acceptable in Ireland to incarcerate a woman who was pregnant, to force her to have a child even if she desperately didn’t want to. As a sensitive and reasonable person, you might consider this unthinkable. But as recently as 2014, a refugee, who had been raped in her homeland, was actually carved open against her will to deliver the baby she was carrying by Caesarean section, after she had been denied an abortion. She is currently pursuing a case against the State for the damages inflicted on her. The same thing could happen again tomorrow.
So let us be clear about the pro-choice argument. If a woman is raped and becomes pregnant, it is a matter of basic human rights, that she is entitled to make a decision entirely on her own behalf, and without having to apologise to anyone, or to travel outside the jurisdiction in which she lives, to end that pregnancy by having an abortion, if that is what she chooses.
On the other hand, depending on her own personal religious, philosophical or personal convictions, she is equally perfectly entitled to decide to carry on with the pregnancy. And if she does so, she should be afforded every support that the State can offer, to assist her in carrying that decision through in a way that is least damaging, and makes her and her child as comfortable and as safe as possible.
This is important. Almost to a woman and a man, people who are pro-choice are hugely supportive of women who decide to have children. That is their track record. They want nothing more than that every woman, and every child, be given the best possible chance of flourishing and being happy, healthy and well educated. But they do not believe that it is right that any woman should be forced to go through with a pregnancy that threatens her sufficiently, in whatever way, for her to decide that she would prefer a termination.
USE OF PSY-OPS
I suspect that the recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly very accurately reflect how people under 50 in Ireland feel about the issue of abortion, and the regime that they want to see introduced here. Indeed, the Assembly may well reflect the views of the entire population: the idea of forcing a woman to go through with a deeply unwanted pregnancy is anathema to many of our older citizens too.
But, as was the case with the same sex marriage referendum, our politicians are far more conservative in relation to abortion rights than the people they represent. Well, they have no mandate to stifle the process of change. They should move forward quickly now and agree on how to frame a new, more liberal regime on abortion that fully respects the human rights of women.
One other point. If and when it comes to a referendum on abortion in Ireland, our electoral laws must be strong enough to ensure that the kind of treacherous, and probably illegal, use of personal data by right-wing forces, which underpinned the election victory of Donald Trump in the US, and which drove the success of the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum in the UK, cannot be repeated here.
The fact is that the democratic process is under direct threat from the military-style use of psy-ops, activated via the vast and unregulated global network of the internet and social media. The zealots behind the Anti Happiness League here in Ireland are perfectly capable of employing these tactics and of paying for them, if they feel that they have half a chance of getting away with it.
The time to act in relation to this is now. Not to do so would be a massive dereliction of duty on the part of our legislators.
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