photo: Irish Examiner

Citizens’ Assembly clears way for State to vote on abortion

Source: Irish Examiner 24th April, 2017 – Evelyn Ring and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

The way has been cleared for the Government to allow a referendum on abortion without restriction early next year after a series of wide-ranging recommendations were made by the independent Citizens’ Assembly.

In an historic move that has far-reaching consequences for the State, 64% of assembly members yesterday voted for terminations without restriction to be made lawful — and said TDs and senators should now legislate for the change.

The randomly selected group of 99 people, who were chaired by Supreme Court judge Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, had on Saturday recommended amending the eighth amendment instead of repealing it entirely.

However, in subsequent votes on yesterday almost two-thirds said abortions should be decriminalised, with almost half (48%) recommending the right to terminate pregnancy without restriction in the first three months of pregnancy, and 44% saying this should be extended to 22 weeks.

The assembly members also voted to legalise terminations for 13 separate reasons — including rape, foetal abnormalities, and socio-economic issues — with almost three quarters of members (72%) saying there should be no distinction between the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman.

Their findings will be included in a report which will also include dissenting voices due to be submitted to the Dáil by late June, with Ms Justice Laffoy saying the recommendations have “at a minimum called for a change to the status quo”.

Should the Dáil and Seanad accept the recommendations, a constitutional referendum will be needed as soon as early next year.

In the first ballot on Saturday, 87% of members said Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment, should not be retained in full, with 56% later saying the amendment should be changed or replaced.

In a third ballot, 57% voted to replace it with a provision authorising the Oireachtas to address abortion and any rights of the unborn and pregnant women.

78% voted to allow abortion where there was a risk to the physical health of the woman, with 89% saying this should happen in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.

Senior Government officials said last night the “political earthquake” caused by the Citizens’ Assembly means an abortion referendum is almost certain early next year.

Before this happens, Ms Justice Laffoy’s report will be examined by a specially convened 20-member Oireachtas committee, which will propose legislative changes by autumn.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will allow a free vote on decisions. Fine Gael chief whip, Regina Doherty said it would be “unwise” for the committee to ignore the Citizens’ Assembly.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin confirmed that Fianna Fáil members would have a free vote: “Let’s see what’s possible and not possible, and then decide subsequently then on any referendums that emerge.”

Responding, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, said deliberately and intentionally taking the life of an innocent person, whatever their state or stage of life, was always “gravely morally wrong”.

The Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment said the assembly members had told politicians what they should have known all along.

Coalition convenor Ailbhe Smyth said the recommendations represented a “real step” towards ending the abortion ban and that politicians had to act quickly.