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