KATHER­INE ZAP­PONE on the abor­tion de­bate

Irish Independent - - NEWS - Kather­ine Zap­pone

SINCE mov­ing to Ire­land in the mid-eight­ies, re­peal of the 8th Amend­ment has been a key per­sonal com­mit­ment of mine. When I ran for elec­tion I made a prom­ise to my con­stituents to work for re­peal, and I car­ried that com­mit­ment with me into Cab­i­net this spring.

In the com­ing weeks the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly will be a re­al­ity un­der the chair of Judge Mary Laf­foy. The first item on its agenda is the 8th Amend­ment.

I un­der­stand and share the im­pa­tience of many for re­form, and I know that some fear the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly is noth­ing more than a de­lay­ing tac­tic. For many, the time for a ref­er­en­dum is now; the time for talk­ing is done.

We saw this in Le­in­ster House with the re­cent Bill by Deputy Mick Wal­lace. It di­vided views not just within par­ties but at the Cab­i­net Ta­ble.

I re­spect the views of those who sup­ported a Bill which was well in­ten­tioned but did have le­gal short­falls.

As a com­mit­ted, pas­sion­ate and sea­soned cam­paigner I also be­lieve that if we were to hold a ref­er­en­dum to re­peal the 8th Amend­ment now, it would not suc­ceed, and once spent, the mo­men­tum to­wards re­peal and re­form will be dif­fi­cult to re­build.

Pro-re­peal ad­vo­cates point to re­cent polls to show a pop­u­lar de­sire for change, but these polls show only a de­sire for some­thing to be done. The con­sen­sus to which they point is nar­row. To be sure, there is sup­port for al­low­ing abor­tion in cases of rape, in­cest and fatal foetal ab­nor­mal­ity, as well as risk to life, but the lev­els of sup­port for a truly lib­eral, au­ton­omy-based right to choose are ei­ther low or not clearly dis­cernible from the polls.

Nei­ther do we know whether peo­ple think the Con­sti­tu­tion should say any­thing at all about abor­tion, or whether it should be left com­pletely to the Oireach­tas to reg­u­late.

It is of­ten said in ref­er­en­dum cam­paigns that ‘if you don’t know, vote ‘no’’, and ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Amnesty In­ter­na­tional/Red C poll 52pc of re­spon­dents said they didn’t feel they knew enough about the 8th Amend­ment to be able to know for sure how they would vote in a ref­er­en­dum. Thus, hold­ing a ref­er­en­dum now with an un­clear pop­u­lar con­sen­sus (and no real po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus) would be un­wise.

Win­ning a ref­er­en­dum re­quires more than a good ar­gu­ment. It re­quires a good knowl­edge base, fac­tual counter-points to mis­in­for­ma­tion, and a large and or­gan­ised can­vass­ing ef­fort across the en­tire coun­try with clear and broad po­lit­i­cal sup­port.

Right now, only a lim­ited ref­er­en­dum to al­low for abor­tion in cases of risk to life, rape, in­cest, and fatal foetal ab­nor­mal­ity seems able to muster those in­gre­di­ents for suc­cess.

While this would be an im­prove­ment on the 8th Amend­ment, it would do noth­ing at all for most women in Ire­land who wish to ac­cess abor­tion. These women ex­ist across the spec­trum: they are young and old, they al­ready have chil­dren and sub­stan­tial car­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, they are rich and poor and mid­dle class, they are in di­rect pro­vi­sion, they are ill, they are healthy, they are our neigh­bours and sis­ters, our wives, girl­friends, moth­ers and daugh­ters.

Fun­da­men­tally, what they have in com­mon is that they do not want to be preg­nant with­out their con­sent. I am com­mit­ted to them hav­ing the op­tion not to be. That is why I sup­port the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly.

I firmly be­lieve that it of­fers an op­por­tu­nity for us to frame a re­spect­ful, well-in­formed and em­pa­thetic national con­ver­sa­tion on what, if any­thing, we want the Con­sti­tu­tion to say about abor­tion, how we want politi­cians to take re­spon­si­bil­ity to en­sure the law re­spects women’s au­ton­omy, and how the 8th Amend­ment deeply im­pacts not only on women but also on med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als’ abil­ity to do their work ac­cord­ing to best in­ter­na­tional prac­tice.

To suc­ceed in this, how­ever, it will need par­tic­i­pa­tion from across the spec­trum; from peo­ple with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the 8th Amend­ment, from NGOs and medics, from women, from aca­demics and from in­ter­na­tional ex­perts.

This is how the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly can build up a body of knowl­edge, made avail­able to all through the In­ter­net, to help shape the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign to come and try to en­sure that it does not de­scend into the bit­ter, myth-laden abor­tion ref­er­en­dums of the past. It can be­come a means of hold­ing the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment – in­clud­ing me – to ac­count for our (in)ac­tion on the ref­er­en­dum. It can help us to achieve change not only for women in ‘ex­treme’ sit­u­a­tions, but for all women.

I re­main as com­mit­ted to re­peal of the 8th Amend­ment now as I have ever been. And I have seen first hand how a de­lib­er­a­tive fo­rum like the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly can help to change minds, to as­suage fears, and to soft en hearts; how it can help us to foster the em­pa­thy needed to undo con­sti­tu­tion­ally-en­trenched in­equal­ity.

This is why I will work with my Cab­i­net col­leagues to make the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly as ef­fec­tive as it can be, and why I be­lieve the cit­i­zens’ assem­bly is a nec­es­sary step on the too-long jour­ney to a ref­er­en­dum to re­peal the 8th.

These women do not want to be preg­nant with­out their con­sent. I am com­mit­ted to them hav­ing the op­tion not to be.

Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Leah O’Ma­hony, Clon­dalkin and Rose Whe­lan, Cabra at an Re­peal the 8th amend­ment cam­paign event.

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