The demand for change was evident before the general election. The hope was that the 32nd Dáil would finally deliver the necessary reform. But ultimately what the Programme for Government proposes is more waiting when it comes to repealing the 8th amendment and expanding access to abortion services. The commitment to a Citizens’ Assembly in the Programme for Government acknowledges the demand for change in our abortion laws, but it certainly cannot be described as a commitment by this government to deliver that change.
I recently read a newspaper article written in 1988 by the late Dr Noel Browne, where he highlighted the issue of abortion access. The former Health Minister lamented the fact that at least 4,000 Irish women and girls every year were being forced to “take the lonely trek to England in search of abortion”. I read it with disbelief, having to remind myself how little the abortion debate has progressed in Ireland over all this time, but mainly I read it with despair.
Despair that three decades and seven governments later, nothing has changed for women in Ireland and the same debate goes on and on, almost verbatim. Despair that women’s lives and health are still put at risk, and our autonomy and independence are still denied. Despair that we are still not respected and treated as equal citizens in a modern republic and that our human rights continue to be violated while successive governments have stood uselessly by, allowing it to happen.
The Programme for Government states that a Citizens’ Assembly will be set up within six months to consider a range of constitutional and other issues, including the Eighth Amendment and that, rather oddly, politicians will have no role in it. That is all we know at this stage. We don’t know its terms of reference, remit and purpose, or makeup or structure. We don’t know who will chair it, who can make submissions to it, who will be represented, who it will report to, or the timeframe for reporting back. We have absolutely no commitment that the Government will act promptly on its recommendations. In short, we know very little about the Citizens’ Assembly, except that it involves more waiting.
The rationale for holding a Citizens’ Assembly eludes most people who quite rightly feel that a referendum is the ultimate Citizens’ Assembly. It makes little sense, when many of the boxes required to justify calling a referendum publicly or politically are now well and truly ticked. Public opinion is transparently clear with polls consistently showing that the vast majority of Irish people are in favour of changing our abortion laws to expand access to abortion services.
The makeup of the 32nd Dáil also favours change. One third of Dáil seats are held by TDs on the left of the political spectrum who would undoubtedly support a Government proposal to put a referendum to the people. With a growing number of Fine Gael and some Fianna Fáil TDs also in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment, we know that 47% of the current Dáil supports holding a referendum.
The Taoiseach has stated that “It is the people’s constitution and that it is only they who can change it”. The Tánaiste rightly believes that “the constitution is not the place to resolve complex issues like this”. Other members of Cabinet have stated publicly that the Eighth Amendment should be repealed and that they favour putting it to a referendum.
The Irish State was again severely criticised during the recent UN Universal Periodic Review for its blatant violation of women’s human rights. Eighteen countries including Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United States made recommendations on reproductive rights and abortion law reform. The Government agreed to consider these.
Reports have been published by a plethora of legislative, executive and judicial bodies on our abortion regime. What can a Citizens’ Assembly possibly add to our current knowledge about, and recognition of, the need for change? What is the point of waiting any longer when the public is demanding an overhaul?
If the Government is determined to go through the motions of a Citizens’ Assembly, then it must be set up with an explicit commitment to bring about much needed reform. Women must be given a cast iron guarantee that they are not being sent to the back of the queue yet again, because this time the public feel that women have waited long enough.
Ailbhe Smyth is Convenor of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, a growing alliance of over 50 organisations.
By Ailbhe Smyth