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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 5 December, 2019
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ABORTION IS FRONT and centre of the agenda of the new Dáil term.

A referendum is expected next year after this was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly.

Exactly what this referendum will propose is far from certain, however.

Today, the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment met for the first formal session to look the issue.

This is what happened.

Hello, Rónán Duffy here. I’ll be following today’s proceedings as chair of the Citizens’ Assembly Justice Mary Laffoy presents her report to the committee.

PastedImage-59770 Source: Oireachtas.ie

The committee has now entered public session with committee chair Senator Catherine Noone introducing the members and those who’ll be presenting today.

PastedImage-35056 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Justice Mary Laffoy is opening he presentation outlining how the assembly was set up, how its members were selected and how its work progressed.

The Citizen’s Assembly met for five week on the issue of the Eighth Amendment.

Laffoy describes it as “one of the most divisive and difficult subjects in Irish public life.”

On its final weekend, the assembly recommended a significant liberalisation of Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

A summary of its recommendations are available here.

Justice laffoy is now speaking about how the assembly heard the testimonies of six women who spoke about their experiences of pregnancy and the Eighth Amendment.

The women remained anonymous but their testimonies were played to members.

Here is what they said.

As well as Justice Mary Laffoy, the committee will also hear today from the Secretary to the Assembly, Sharon Finegan and the Deputy Secretary, Gráinne Hynes.

Justice Laffoy summarises the assembly’s recommendation on the Eighth Amendment:

Put simply, the members voted that they wanted to remove Article 40.3.3° from the Constitution, and for the avoidance of doubt, to replace it with a provision in the Constitution, which would make it clear that termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn, and any rights of the pregnant woman are matters for the Oireachtas. In other words, it would be solely a matter for the Oireachtas to decide how to legislate on these issues.

Laffoy says that she is aware that the results of the assembly “caused surprise” among some people.

“I am aware that the results caused surprise across some sections of society but I truly believe they were reached not by chance or accident but following a thorough and rational thought process each member undertook as they stepped up to the ballot box,” she said.

Laffoy stresses that she is speaking personally.

“Each vote was underpinned by expert evidence received from twenty-five professionals across eighty hours of active Assembly participation.”

Laffoy speaks about the six women who told their personal stories to the assembly.

She notes that the women made different decisions but “each felt that the Eighth Amendment impacted upon their decision-making”.

Laffoy gets to crux of what this committee is about.

“The recommendations which the assembly has made are just that- recommendations. The assembly does not, cannot and should not usurp the role of elected members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann,” she says.

PastedImage-67103 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Following the conclusion of Justice Laffoy’s remarks, Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher TD begins questions. He has ten minutes.

He asks when the recommendations “became clear” to the assembly and whether “there was a change in the attitudes” of assembly members across the five weeks of the assembly.

Kelleher is asking about the information provided to members during the assembly and “whether it is possible to distil all the information” down to the public ahead of a referendum.

“I can truthfully say that I didn’t notice a change in mood over the course of the process,” Laffoy said in response to Kelleher’s questions.

PastedImage-12055 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly asks some questions to Justice Laffoy about the submissions sent to the assembly and the duplication within them.

She also says that some people have unfairly criticised the assembly process and asks asks Laffoy whether she is satisfied that the recommendations of the assembly accurately represented their views.

FYI

There were 13,075 submissions received by the assembly on the issue, of which 8,092 were received online and 4,983 were received by post.

The vast majority were published and are available to see here.

Asked by O’Reilly about any suggestions for people to hear from during the committee, Laffoy says she believes the use of abortion pills was not discussed enough by the assembly.

“One thing I think we didn’t cover sufficiently, because the situation is changing, is abortion pills,” Laffoy says.

Laffoy quotes research from the HSE which shows that there are “increasing numbers of women who are making contact with online abortion pill providers”.

Laffoy says she believes the assembly was:

“Fair, balanced, impartial, did not mislead the members and was not responsible for a liberal approach.”

PastedImage-83970 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Ruth Coppinger TD responds to an earlier comment by Billy Kelleher TD who said that a roadmap had not been laid out by the assembly.

Coppinger says: “This is not as difficult as is being made out and and clear pathway has been laid out.”

Coppinger asks Laffoy whether she has been: “a bit surprised by the reactions to the Citizens’ Assembly report?”

She makes reference to comments from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who cast doubt on whether the public would back the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations.

“I wouldn’t dream of criticising reporters or politicians,” Laffoy says in response to the last question.

PastedImage-30796 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers TD asks a number of questions. One about the assembly’s recommendation that the termination of pregnancy be allowed without restriction up to a defined term limit.

The assembly recommended that abortion be provided without restriction up until 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Chambers asks whether this was partly influenced by a belief among assembly members that legislating for abortion in cases of rape or incest is too difficult.

Laffoy says that it is not possible to say whether this influenced their decision.

PastedImage-37875 Independent TD Clare Daly. Source: Oireachtas.ie

While praising the assembly members for their work, Clare Daly TD asks if they had “an expectation that their views be influenced in full”.

She also asks if there are any other issues where it is stated within the constitution that legislation must deal with it.

Laffoy says this may partly have been influenced because of the acknowledgement of “implied rights” of the unborn child.

“I would be very keen at the end of this process that we have certainty,” Laffoy adds.

Ruane asks Laffoy whether assembly’s vote to replace the Eighth Amendment was intended to “copperfasten” the power of the Oireachtas to legislate in this area.

Laffoy says that she believes this was the case.

Hildegarde Naughton TD asking Laffoy about this portion of her report:

PastedImage-6899 Source: citizensassembly.ie

She wants to know if this means it would not be a matter for the courts.

Laffoy says it would intend to make so that it could not be challenged.

James Browne TD is looking to find out whether the assembly considered the political realities of coalitions etc. and how that would influence legislation.

Laffoy said it did not.

“The heel of the reel of the issue is whether this topic should be dealt with in the constitution or in legislation,” she said.

PastedImage-32246 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Independent Senator Rónán Mullen says that some of the experts who spoke before the assembly “may have been experts but they were not neutral”.

He says that the assembly did not consider the “very obviously reality that thousands of lives have been saved” by the Eighth Amendment.

 

He said he found it “disturbing” that assembly members at the end of the process asked questions about how abortions took place.

Secretary to the assembly Sharon Finegan tells Mullen that they were provided with that information on two occasions.

“I think it is fair to say that the information that was provided was neutral information,” Laffoy tells Mullen.

“We did give the assembly members the information that we felt was needed,” she adds.

Senator Jerry Buttimer is looking for clarity surrounding the issue of repealing versus amending and asks how this would be explained to the public given that there confusion over this issue at the assembly.

Buttimer also wants to know what occurs if a referendum is passed and the constitution is changed but that the Oireachtas then fails to legislate.

Laffoy says the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act would govern law in this area.

PastedImage-88014 Source: Oireachtas.ie

Committee chair Catherine Noone asks a question of Laffoy.

She notes that the committee is only asking two advocacy groups to speak before them and wants to know if Laffoy feels that is sufficient.

The groups, by the way, represent the area of fatal foetal abnormality and will include TFMR Ireland who did not present before the assembly.

Noone says that the committee is keen not to duplicate the work of the assembly.

Laffoy says that it is difficult to make this judgement but that other advocacy groups made detailed submissions to the assembly and they are publicly available if committee members require them.

Following that response, Noone closes today’s proceedings until next week.

Next week’s proceedings will focus on the potential legal scenarios that could prevail following a decision to replace or amend the Article 40.3.3 of the constitution.

Noone makes specific reference to the opinion Brian Murray gave to the assembly which is available here.

Source: The Citizens' Assembly/YouTube

While that concludes today’s liveblog, TheJournal.ie will have further coverage of today’s proceedings.

Every Wednesday evening, we will be sending out an email round-up of what happened at the committee that day.

To get the weekly round-up, just enter your email in the box at the bottom of this article.

Thank you for joining us.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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