It’s all over bar the shouting, so the saying goes. As the Citizens’ Assembly moved last weekend from a session of presentations and questioning to a phase of internal debate towards a final ballot on recommendations to be put to the Oireachtas, it is a fairly safe bet that we have not heard the last of the shouting on the emotive debate that forever surrounds the abortion issue.
Some would have it also that a wager just as safe and secure is that on the outcome of the Assembly deliberations. From the beginning of the process commentators have cast a cynical eye on what is perceived as the ‘device’ of Taoiseach Enda Kenny in keeping his administration at one remove from the decision to finally move on Ireland’s abortion laws, and specifically on the Eighth Amendment constitutional protection for the unborn. In the eyes of some, the neatest trick Mr Kenny has pulled is shifting himself from the previous pejorative of ‘King Herod’ to a helpless ‘Pontius Pilate’ on abortion.
An attempt to counter pro-life suspicions of imbalance lay in last weekend’s invitation to a number of representative groups, including the bishops’ conference, to offer their perspective on the debate, in this, the first sitting since political and religious outrage was levelled against the February sitting where pro-abortion medical opinion was skewed 3-1 against the pro-life side.
For the record, then, the full list of groups invited to offer 10-minute presentations last weekend is: the Irish Catholic Bishops; The Iona Institute; Family & Life; the Pro Life Campaign; Doctors for Life Ireland; Every Life Counts; Youth Defence; the General Synod of the Church of Ireland; Women Hurt; Doctors for Choice; the Union of Students in Ireland; the National Women’s Council of Ireland; Parents for Choice; The Irish Family Planning Association; Amnesty International; the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and Atheist Ireland.
Full marks must go to the bishops in recognising that suspicions and perceptions work both ways, leading to a carefully considered addendum to the Church’s pro-life argument on the day.
Presenting on behalf of the prelates – in the company of Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick – Kate Liffey, National Director for Catechetics, and Coordinator of the National Faith Development Team, of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, took time to tackle the “popular misconceptions about Church teaching on the subject of the right to life”. (How many of the Assembly’s 99 members have had the abortion debate filtered exclusively through the secular press?)
These misconceptions, she said were: “The Catholic Church has never taught that the life of a child in the womb should be preferred to that of a mother. By virtue of their common humanity a mother and her unborn baby have an equal right to life.
“Where a seriously ill pregnant woman needs medical treatment which may, as a secondary effect, put the life of her baby at risk, such treatments are always ethically permissible provided every effort has been made to save the life of both the mother and her baby. Abortion, by contrast, is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby and is gravely immoral in all circumstances. Abortion is not a medical treatment.
“When, sadly, a baby dies naturally in the womb before birth, there is no question of the mother being obliged to proceed with the pregnancy. There is now only one ‘patient’, the mother. The mother becomes the sole focus of any medical care that is required. Along with the father, the mother is entitled to the best pastoral care that we can offer, as they grieve the loss of their child.”
Maria Steen, on behalf of the Iona Institute, meanwhile, in arguing against the holding of a referendum to remove the “fundamental human right” to life, challenged the assembly to imagine “what Ireland would look like without the Eighth Amendment”.
“Behind the glib exhortation ‘Repeal’ is a landscape with no restrictions on abortion, no term limits and no rights for the child in the womb,” she said. “Repeal means repealing human rights. It means turning a blind eye to those who would discriminate against a baby just because she is a girl, or because he has Downs Syndrome, or looking the other way when a healthy child’s life is ended because she is not wanted. It means allowing a child to be punished for the criminal acts of her father. It means that a child whose natural life, doctors guess at, might be short can be condemned to die unnaturally despite the fact that it is the only life that baby will ever have.”
Perhaps reflecting the attendance in February of the Guttmacher Institute, a ‘cheerleader’ group for America’s Planned Parenthood abortion provider, Ms Steen went on to warn: “Repeal means surgeons killing defenceless infants for money and groups with friends in high places campaigning for the right to do so.”
The charges previously levelled from political and religious quarters of an apparent imbalance in the workings of the assembly have not been entirely laid to rest by last weekend’s session, however. A spokesperson for The Iona Institute who was present for the latest sitting told this newspaper: “It was very notable that almost all of the challenging questions from the participants on Sunday were directed at pro-life advocates and almost none at pro-choice advocates. If the delegates were truly representative of public opinion, this would not have happened.”
The proof of all may yet to be found in the final decision of the assembly members regarding their recommendations to legislators. It is to be borne in mind that the assembly now debates in the light of the latest The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll which found that just 28% of people in Ireland want the Eighth Amendment protection for the unborn repealed.
It must be acknowledged at the same time that the previous insistence on balance as a “fundamental” element of the process on the part of Justice Mary Laffoy was apparent in the form of legal expert Brian Murray SC, drafted in to lay out the choices now before the assembly members.
Careful to stress that he was not present to sway the assembly in any direction, but merely to sum up the choice now available to members, Mr Murray said these choices are: retention of the Eighth Amendment protection for the unborn; repeal of the amendment, or retention with further amendments inserted into the Constitution (Mr Murray laid out the varying permutations here also).
The last word, therefore, now falls to the 99 selected members of the Citizens’ Assembly.
A last thought however, is worth considering. It is one offered by Maria Steen in her warning of what Ireland risks losing in this ‘first-step’ decision to be reached by the assembly.
“Our Irish Constitution,” she said, “is a beacon of hope in a world that has become darkened by a trend that elevates choice over justice. Were you to recommend the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, our country would follow that well-worn path towards a culture where human life is cheapened, made dispensable, commoditised. We have a chance – you have a chance – to take a stand and value all human life, to defend a vulnerable minority that is under threat.”