As we have done before, this weekend we followed the livestream of the Citizens’ Assembly (CA) proceedings as they met for the second time to discuss the Eighth Amendment. We have been upfront about our belief that the Assembly is a delaying tactic, but we are also willing to engage with the process, as anything that may help bring about a referendum to repeal the Eighth is to be welcomed as a step on the way to providing free, safe and legal abortion to all in Ireland who need it. As such, we made a substantive submission to the Assembly.
From the beginning, it has been difficult to establish exactly what the terms of reference of the CA are, (outside of the very general description on its website) and exactly how its submissions, both professional and from the public, should be structured. The first session on the Eighth indicated that the focus during the meetings would be on presentations by medics, legal and ethics professors and other experts, but not so much on the experiences of people directly affected by the Eighth. This is why we made a point of centring the voices of women who have been impacted by our laws in our submission to the CA. We were pleased to hear that members of the CA stated that they wanted to hear from people who have had abortions. Their request indicated that the focus on abstract experts, while very welcome in a post-truth culture, is not sufficient to tell the whole story of the devastating effects the Eighth Amendment has on people in Ireland who can get pregnant.
For the most part, Saturday’s session of the CA followed the format of the previous sessions. Drs Peter McParland and Adrienne Foran of the National Maternity Hospital and the Rotunda Hospital presented statistics on diagnoses of foetal abnormality, including fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) in Ireland. Data from the UK was used to establish the number of women in Ireland who travel abroad for terminations. Dr Foran also presented some hypothetical case studies based on data from real cases, though none of these case studies involved people who travelled for termination. Dr Noelle Higgins of Maynooth University and Senior Counsel Eileen Barrington then explained the legal status of FFA terminations in Ireland (in short, such terminations remain illegal due to article 40:3:3).
The afternoon session dealt with a more abstract subject: Ethical Perspectives: the Moral Status of the Unborn/Foetus. The odd use of two terms to describe the same thing indicated that the session would be dealing in more subjective territory. It seems likely the session fell under the category of “Presentations from civil society and advocacy groups” as described in the typical meeting running order outlined on the CA website. In that case, it might have been expected that the first speaker, Dr Helen Watt, would have been noted as coming from a religious perspective. Dr Watt is an academic in the Anscombe Centre, a Catholic academic institute that “brings to bear….the teaching of the Catholic Church..[on] moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research”. As such, Dr Watt’s religious and anti-choice perspective quickly became obvious during her presentation and the later Q&A session, during which she stated that pregnant people frequently cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, ludicrously compared abortion to slavery, and was perceived to be mocking parents who choose termination in FFA cases for wishing to keep mementos of their babies.
Dr Watt was followed by Dr Bobbie Farsides of Sussex and Brighton Medical School, who stated clearly at the beginning of her presentation that she came from a pro-choice perspective (in fact, she included a reference to that perspective in the title of her paper). This appears to be in keeping with the remit of this part of the session — it made clear that she was advocating a particular position — a commitment to clarity that does not appear (to those following the livestream, at least) to have been so scrupulously observed by Dr Watt.
Dr Farsides also made clear that she was not speaking for all pro-choice people, acknowledging that there are multiple shades of opinion on the issue of abortion, something Dr Watt’s more dogmatic presentation seemed unwilling to concede. Dr Farsides talked about how policy that focuses almost exclusively on foetal life rather than centring the rights of pregnant people rarely leads to good healthcare or good law. In trying to answer impossible questions, much of the debate on the issue of abortion becomes bogged down in minutiae while in real life women continue to suffer. She also emphasised the importance of not imposing beliefs on the general population based in religious belief rather than scientific fact or medical best practice. As Dr Farsides put it, “The battle is not therefore between competing accounts of the moral status of the embryo but rather between moral liberalism and absolutism.”
We don’t know if the members of the Assembly were informed prior to the day’s meeting that the afternoon session would entail competing arguments by advocates of drastically different positions. In any case, we have always objected to the media’s framing of debates about abortion as taking place between two equal and opposite ‘extremes’, when in fact only the anti-choice position can be interpreted as extreme. Most people in Ireland are opposed to forced pregnancy in at least some situations, and very few agree that abortion should never be allowed at all. We feel that by giving Dr Watt such a prominent position in the day’s proceedings to advance a very extreme anti-choice position (the religiously-inspired belief that an embryo has full human status from the moment of conception), the CA organisers did not provide its members with a particularly useful or representative picture of the actual ethical and moral questions people are asking about the Eighth Amendment. We don’t believe that religious advocates should be banned from addressing the Assembly; we simply find it troubling that a narrowly religious perspective (that does not necessarily reflect the opinions of many practicing Catholics in Ireland, anyway) was given equal prominence with an objectively more reasonable and nuanced pro-choice viewpoint. A session entailing a speaker like Dr Farsides alongside a speaker who only favoured choice in limited circumstances would be more representative of the real discussions going on in Ireland today, and no doubt among the members of the Assembly too.
It’s also impossible to know if the members were aware prior to her talk that Dr Watt was representing a religious institute. It certainly was not clear from the day’s running order, and many watching the livestream were confused by her statements until it became clear she was speaking from a religious perspective. Members of the Assembly, especially those who remember the original campaign on the Eighth Amendment, might also have appreciated being informed that Dr Watts has spoken at the SPUC “Society for the Protection of Unborn Children” annual Youth Conference in the UK. Again, we don’t know if this, or similar relevant information, was communicated to members before Saturday’s sessions. It may not be obligatory to provide such information, but it certainly could be helpful, especially in the context of a presentation that was, to many, highly offensive and misleading.
While the format of the afternoon session was not intended to be a debate, some elements of debating did creep in during the Q&A session that closed out the day. It was during this period that Dr Watt made some of the particularly offensive and subjective statements noted above. The Q&A format was helpful when the members needed clarification on issues by experts, but it was less helpful in the afternoon when two positions, one of which was extreme and unrepresentative, were presented as equally valid. The last thing the CA, and the people of Ireland more generally, need are more ‘debates’. Facts are the only thing that matter, and the most important facts are the lived experiences of people who have been denied essential medical care by the Eighth Amendment. Unfortunately, these testaments continue to be notably absent from CA proceedings to date.