Opinion: Seize the means of reproduction!

As the Citizen’s Assembly comes to a close, Zuzia Whelan considers the results and the response from government. 

On 23 April, the Citizens’ Assembly made a recommendation to the government that women in Ireland should have unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

The Assembly also voted on a number of other, more specific circumstances in which abortion would be legal.


These were:

  • real and substantial physical risk to the life of the woman;
  • real and substantial risk to the life of the woman by suicide;
  • serious risk to the physical health of the woman;
  • serious risk to the mental health of the woman;
  • serious risk to the health of the woman;
  • risk to the physical health of the woman;
  • risk to the health of the woman;
  • pregnancy as a result of rape;
  • the unborn child has a foetal abnormality that is likely to result in death before or shortly after birth;
  • the unborn child has a significant foetal abnormality that is not likely to result in death before or shortly after birth;
  • socio-economic reasons;
  • no restriction as to reasons.

The assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a referendum on the eighth amendment, though it recommended that the amendment be replaced, not repealed.

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Results for ballots voted on by the Citizens Assembly. Image credit: Citizens Assembly

Now we wait

In late June, Supreme Court Justice Mary Laffoy will submit a report to the Dail, including the results of the Citizens’ Assembly vote.

If the recommendations are accepted by TDs, a constitutional referendum will be necessary to bring about any reform.

Ms Justice Laffoy also wished to commend the members of the assembly on navigating one of the most contentious and complex issues in Irish society.

In their work to date they have covered ground that has never previously been explored or in Ireland and this will be to the benefit of discourse on this topic.”

Ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar in particular will need to navigate the public  mood as they vie for leadership of their party, as government engagement with the issue will be critical in the coming weeks.

Response from government

Late last week at the Global Irish Civic Forum, Minister Coveney said that a referendum on the eighth amendment may be held at the same time as a referendum on the right for emigrants to vote in presidential elections, sometime next year.

Simon Coveney, Fine Gael TD, has said that he is uncomfortable with the recommendations made by the assembly, and will not support them.

Fine Gael TD, Leo Varadkar, has previously said he does not support abortion on demand, but believes it should be available in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and when the mother’s life is at risk.


Minister for Justice and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald has said that she thinks there should be a referendum on the eighth amendment as soon as possible next year.

Minister Fitzgerald told the Dail last week,“We have a very, very bad history when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.”

In the same week, Minister Micheal Martin told Shane Beatty on KFM that a referendum on the eighth amendment is inevitable.

He also told Beatty that he is from a ‘pro-life’ background, and would not support women who would choose an abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Minister Martin explained that he thinks it’s “not that simple,” if a woman is raped by a relative, and seeks an abortion.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has told the Journal that if a constitutional change is to be made, a referendum will have to take place. 

He added that in a referendum, people will be voting yes or no, so legislation will be required to support the outcome. It’s difficult to argue with these points. 

Mr Kenny has remained typically tight-lipped on matters of women’s health.


A change in vocabulary

What emerges from government reactions to the assembly’s recommendations is that, unsurprisingly, the most prominent voices on this issue so far are male.

That’s not to say that women are silent, or that men should have no say.

Senator Catherine Noone, Fine Gael’s Kate Connolly, Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, Social Democrat Catherine Murphy, Independent Clare Daly, Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger and Brid Smith of People Before Profit have all confirmed that they are pro-choice.

Independents Mattie McGrath and Ronan Mullen have said they are anti-abortion.

The Citizens’ Assembly by its nature reflects the views of all citizens in Ireland, regardless of gender, orientation or religion, which is as it should be.

We cannot, however, ignore the practicality of childbirth and gestation, in that they fall exclusively to the mother.  

If a man and woman are together in a position where they believe a termination may be necessary, it is certainly a joint decision.

If, however, government representatives are making decisions about the bodies of women they have never met, particularly in cases of rape, incest and other tragedies, the very least we should expect is that more female members of government should be heard.

When Minister Varadkar says he is in favour of terminations being available in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when the mother’s life is in danger, he is not making a particularly strong statement.

Following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was enacted in 2013 to legislate for termination in cases of risk to the life of the mother, or in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Minister Varadkar is simply stating that he agrees with the legislation brought in five years ago.

When Minister Coveney says he can not support “abortion on demand,” he uses a phrase more akin to television subscriptions and fast food, not the painful and difficult decisions faced by hundreds every day.

What has become clear in the course of the assembly and its engagement with the public and the government, is that our vocabulary needs to change.

There should be no “abortion on demand,” nor should the phrase “innocent,” be used to describe the lives of terminated foetuses. Similarly, the term “pro-life” leaves a lot to be desired.  

Innocence had nothing to do with terminations, and pro-life is not the opposite of pro-choice, which is a less loaded term. 

This emotive and biased language is not only disrespectful to women and their partners, but demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of the situation and zeitgeist.

What next?

Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan has confirmed he will sit on the Oireachtas Committee charged with debating and discussing the report.

Mr Durkan says he does not consider himself as being on either side of the debate, and has rightly said that we need to know what the replacement will be.

The campaign for Repeal the Eighth was incredibly powerful and vocal. Now that the assembly has voted in favour of a referendum, the fact that they have recommended to replace rather than repeal has been somewhat eclipsed.

The reproductive rights of women should have no place in the constitution. What has been a slow process to make women’s voices heard should not end in another equally vague and unquantifiable amendment.

In the meantime, the hashtag #uncomfortable is trending on Twitter.




Feature image credit: European People’s Party, 2012



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