Comment & Analysis

Citizens’ Assembly on abortion looks increasingly like a foregone conclusion
Fine Gael fig-leaf gathering is arousing more than a little suspicion, writes Paul Keenan
The Assembly has been accused of ignoring the 100,000 lives saved by the Eighth Amendment.

From the outset, there have been those voices who argue that the current Citizens’ Assembly, rather than giving voice to the popular will, was actually a diversionary tactic to shift the blame for any move towards introducing abortion to Ireland from the shoulders of a Government all-too-cognisant of the depth of feeling on all sides on the issue in this country.

During the gathering in Dublin at the weekend, pro-life Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín spoke for many when he took to social media to express the view that the outcome of the assembly is in “little doubt if it continues to stack sessions with pro-choice witnesses”.

Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran, also on social media, was emphatic in his allegation that the meetings are “becoming more and more like a pro-abortion rally”. The bishop’s comments came after reports that many delegates were annoyed that there were so many pro-life submissions.

Misgivings

Despite misgivings about the selection process of the 99 members of the assembly, many hoped that under the stewardship of the highly-respected Justice Mary Laffoy, the gathering would be afforded room for fair debate and access to contributions from across the spectrum.

It hasn’t been promising so far.

Convened to consider further the issues of rape and of the availability of abortion in other jurisdictions (as well as allowing for discussion of the 13,500 submissions made to the assembly by members of the public), the weekend session was informed that it would hear from two leading voices from beyond these shores in the fields of abortion.

Specifically, these were Gilda Sleigh of the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, whose website describes the body as a “leading research and policy organisation committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States”, and Dr Patricia Lohr, medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). ‘Reproductive rights’ is the favoured term of international pro-abortion lobbyists.

Alongside these contributors was Dr Donal O’Mathuna, senior lecturer in ethics, decision-making and evidence at Dublin City University, and Dr Joan McCarthy, lecturer in healthcare ethics in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at University College Cork.

Of these four contributors, only Dr O’Mathuna would subsequently argue the case for the unborn, whom he described as “totally without power” amid the arguments offered for abortion.

The storm from religious, lay and political quarters to the panel make-up was inevitable, and immediate.

In its response, the Pro Life Campaign (PLC) accused the assembly of lacking balance in its discussions on abortion and of ignoring the positive impact of the constitutional protection for the unborn. 

Spokesperson Sinéad Slattery said it was “bizarre, to say the least, that a leading abortion provider in Britain, a business that has publicly campaigned against Ireland’s constitutional protection for the unborn, should be invited to present under the heading of ‘case studies’ and ‘care paths’. Even more strange is that an invitation was given to the partisan Guttmacher Institute to present an ‘overview of the availability of legal terminations in other jurisdictions’.” She went on to point out that, for real balance and impartiality, “a neutral institute or group of scholars should have been asked to present such a dossier”.

Stronger still, in a statement accusing the Assembly of a “fatal lack of fairness”, Independent TD Mattie McGrath described the invitation to Guttmacher as “misguided and profoundly problematic”.

“Guttmacher have long associations with International Planned Parenthood, the world’s largest abortion providers, and have even been described as its research arm,” he said. “I would suggest that this is definitely not the kind of partisan organisation that can be trusted to give a fair and balanced analysis of abortion in other jurisdictions.”

Further, “when it comes to BPAS the problems are even more significant. This is an organisation that has actively campaigned against the criminalisation of sex-selective abortion.  For BPAS, if a pregnant women wishes to abort her child for the sole reason that it is a girl, then that should be perfectly ok.”   

Reaction

Faced with the strength of reaction, Justice Mary Laffoy was at pains to defend the choice of speakers at the session, insisting in her closing remarks that assembly members had a right to hear fully the ethical, legal and medical arguments on abortion and issues surrounding it. 

“We have consistently tried to put the medical and the legal material before you in a factual, neutral and balanced manner,” she insisted, though she also added, “I have to say this balance can be difficult to achieve in such a highly contested and controversial area.”

She went on to stress that a striving for balance remains “fundamental” to the work of the assembly, and there is no suggestion that Ms Laffoy is responsible for the apparent lack of balance.

But, such a defence did little to assuage the suspicions that the assembly is now gearing itself up to an inevitable outcome and one that pushes for a referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment constitutional protection for the unborn.

Approached by The Irish Catholic on the basis of his input on social media lamenting just such a potential outcome, Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín TD told this newspaper: “It has always been my view that Fine Gael created the Citizens’ Assembly in order to outsource the decision on whether or not to hold a referendum on abortion. Fine Gael made this decision because they know that such a decision would seriously damage their voter base.

“However this process is increasingly transparent. Many of the witnesses invited to the assembly are stalwarts of the international abortion industry. However, there seems to be few experts to detail the enormous impact abortion has on babies with disabilities, from poor backgrounds, ethnic minorities or indeed baby girls, all of whom are far more likely to be aborted in abortion regimes.”

Deputy Tóibín went on to voice that which the PLC’s Sinéad Slattery had previously accused the Assembly of ignoring.

“The Eighth Amendment has ensured that Ireland’s abortion rate is significantly lower than comparative countries. Its stands to reason as a result that there are thousands of people alive and well in Ireland due to the Eighth Amendment.”

While finding the submissions from the public ‘emotive’ and not adding anything to the work of the assembly, at least one member decried the fact that, according to a report, “a lot of the submissions had a religious ethos which were not relevant to the discussion”.

Reacting to this, Bishop Kevin Doran cut succinctly through all arguments when he stated of that which looks increasingly inevitable: “We can make our point just as clearly if and when there is a referendum.”