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Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly Shows That More Information Makes People More Pro-Choice

Feminism Around the World Ireland

Abortion is currently illegal in the Republic of Ireland, thanks in part to the Eighth Amendment of its Constitution. Despite repeated protests and strikes in support of a national referendum on the Amendment, the Taoiseach (prime minster) and the Oireachtas (parliament) have resisted calling one. Instead, they called together a Citizens’ Assembly, composed of 99 randomly selected citizens, to look at the issue (among others facing the Irish people.)

The Assembly will listen to hours of testimony on a particular issue, with representatives from all sides of a debate presenting. Then, the members of the Assembly vote on a number of resolutions, and, as summarized by the Irish government, “their conclusions will form the basis of a number of reports and recommendations that will be submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.” The Assembly doesn’t actually pass or write any laws, but their conclusions are sent to the legislature as a suggested basis for new laws or referendums.

For the Eighth Amendment, Assembly members had to sit through hours and hours of testimony on abortion. They were originally supposed to meet for only four weekends to discuss the issue, but the chairperson decided to add a fifth weekend of testimony and debate. Speakers included medical professionals, legal experts, and religious groups; the public submissions included personal testimony from women who had either experienced or been denied abortions, as well as people who might have been aborted had the process been legal when they were conceived.

This weekend, after those hours of testimony, the Citizens’ Assembly voted on a number of different ballot provisions, and they overwhelmingly supported abortion rights. Almost two-thirds (64%) of the Citizens’ Assembly voted to have no restrictions on abortion access. Some of their other recommendations are below.

  • 64% said there should be no restriction based on the reason for seeking an abortion
  • 48% voted that there should be no restriction on abortion through first 12 weeks of gestation, and 44% voted for no restriction up to 22 weeks.
  • 89% supported abortion rights in the case of rape
  • 89% supported abortion rights in the case of a fetal abnormality likely to result in the infant’s death before or shortly after birth
  • 78% supported abortion rights where there is a risk to the pregnant person’s physical or mental health

As The Irish Times observed, “The outcome is a recommendation far more liberal than many observers had expected” in uber-Catholic Ireland.

Ms. Justice Mary Laffoy, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland who was overseeing the Assembly, said before the vote, “When we all came together for the first meeting in November, it was clear to me that within the room there was a wide range of experiences, opinions and ideas on the Eighth Amendment, a topic that has at times convulsed the nation…By participating in the Assembly we have also been afforded a unique opportunity, as this exercise in deliberative democracy allowed us to withdraw from the polarising perspectives and begin first and foremost with the facts.”

“The process we followed saw us begin with facts and divest ourselves of opinion,” she continued. “Consequently, we did not follow the more familiar path on this topic where equal time is provided to each side of the argument. I believe this has contributed greatly to the standard of information that we have received on this topic.”

She also urged them: “There are very few people who will have the breadth of knowledge you have on this topic, and you have an opportunity to bring this knowledge and, your understanding of it, to our elected representatives.”

I think Laffoy’s speech is particularly important here. These people had to listen to hours of expert testimony from all sides. (They actually complained when submissions from the general public did not present facts, and were annoyed that the religious testimony, while often moving, “offered no solutions.”) And I think Lafoy is right that they therefore enjoyed a unique “breadth of knowledge” on the issue – and it made them very pro-choice.

This is not to say that, morally, they all necessarily now approve of abortion. Many religious politicians in the United States are personally against abortion but recognize the moral necessity of treating women like autonomous adults under the law. (Tim Kaine made this same point during the vice presidential debate.) I can’t tell from these ballots how the members of the Assembly feel on a personal, rather than a legal, level  – but it’s clear that they’ve become quite pro-choice when it comes to the law.

Now if we could just sit everyone down for a few hours of testimony…

(Via The Irish Times and RTE; image via Shutterstock)

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