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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C

As it happened: Eighth Amendment Committee to recommend straight repeal

Here’s what happened at the committee’s meeting today.

THE COMMITTEE ON the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution is meeting again today, to continue its consideration of the Citizens’ Assembly report.

We’ll keep you up-to-date on the committee as it goes on, and you can watch the proceedings in the video below.

iPhone/iPad users: click here.  Streams provided by HEAnet.

Chairperson Catherine Noone starts the meeting by reading a letter to the committee from the Danish Ambassador, to address certain comments made in sessions about his country’s abortion policy.

The letter says it is “not the policy of the Danish health authorities to eradicate Down’s syndrome”, it is to provide women with best basis to make their own decision.

And now the committee can get down to business. They’ll be debating their own views on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.

First up is Bríd Smith. She describes the witnesses who have appeared before the committee as “expert and refreshing and honest and decent”. She adds that they were met, at times, with a certain amount of hostility.

Smith says she found it quite distressing at times when she thought about access to equality in this country.

“We really do need to play catch up.”

The problem, she says, starts with sex education in Ireland

If sex is not seen as “something to be celebrated and enjoyed and part of human beings’ lives”, it is going to be challenging for people to receive a proper sex education, according to Smith.

The access to contraception, then, once a young person is sexually active is important.

When I was a young woman I found myself pregnant when contraception failed me. I only knew that was the case after I felt sick every morning and missed periods.

“The only option for me was to go to England,” she tells the committee.

She says this country has changed, and there are men and women in Ireland who will not accept “the old order”.

Brid Smith says she will be voting to back all of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly

However, she thinks the committee should make a recommendation to the Dail on the question of criminalisation.

“It’s bad enough to have to deal with the stigma”, she says, without being criminalised for going online to access an abortion pill, or having to hide the fact that you have travelled abroad to have a termination.

Smith says there should be simple wording in the referendum: ”People are not stupid”.

Lynn Ruane is up next.

She says the committee can all agree it was “a robustly fair” process.

“We heard evidence that medical practitioners need flexibility.”

She says she supports the repeal of the entire article, but instead of replacing it, make the accompanying legislation “as legally robust and constitutionally sound as possible”, while still retaining the possibility of judicial review.

Ruane says we cannot stop women accessing abortion pills – all we can control is whether a woman takes it legally and safely or alone, without any medical support.

This decision must be made between a woman and her doctors, she tells the committee.

She also says that the only way to serve women who have been victims of incest or rape, without requiring invasive verification, is to allow abortion on request.

Peter Fitzpatrick starts by talking about babies with Down’s syndrome, who he says he has “no doubt” are at increased risk.

He is also concerned that some of the “serious side effects” have not been discussed, such as psychological problems, perforation of the uterus, heavy bleeding and “death in some cases”.

The risk to women’s health has been “brushed under the carpet” during this process, Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says they have not spoken about the lives saved by the Eighth Amendment.

“I have become aware of many people and organisations who are able to speak about the lifesaving effects but are not prepared to come speak here because we already voted not to retain the amendment in full.”

“I want to live in a country where women and babies are well cared for,” he says, expressing disappointment in how the committee has conducted its business.

Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan says she believes the committee has done its business fairly and with diligence.

Speaking about referendum wording, O’Sullivan echoes Brid Smith in recommending that the wording be kept simple and that they propose the repeal of Article 43.3.

Her second option would be that legislation be published in tandem with the referendum.

I would hope that whenever the referendum is to be held that we have a debate that’s based on facts and that is respectful of different viewpoints whether we share them or not.

O’Sullivan also says it is important that enhanced contraception access goes hand in hand with the introduction of new measures around abortion.

Clare Daly is up next.

“We were here not just to validate the decisions of Citizens Assembly,” she says – the committee’s job was to analyse them and look at how they could bring them forward.

She also believes the full repeal of the amendment is the way to go, without replacing it.

“The constitution isn’t a place to regulate medical practice,” she tells the committee.

Real life medical practice requires flexibility.

“A lot of inaccurate points were made during the discussion,” according to Daly.

She said when the amendment was brought in back in 1983, abortion was already illegal in Ireland. All it did, she says, was ensure that abortions happened later, that more of them were done through surgical teams and that vulnerable and sometimes sick women were “exported out of this country”

She dismissed suggestions that the amendment as “saved loads of lives”.

International comparisons of abortion rates cannot be used, she says, as we do not have accurate figures for Irish abortion rates.

If want to lower abortion rates, restrictive legislation is not to do it

Daly also tells the committee that any suggestion that there will be “marauding gangs of women” coming to claim right to a late term abortion is “frankly really insulting”.

Catherine Murphy agrees that with the ‘repeal and not replace’ view that majority of her committee colleagues have expressed.

It was the healthcare of other jurisdictions that took care of women in very stressful situations, she says.

These women are Ireland’s mothers, daughters and sisters.

“I’d rather have obstetrician making decision on medical grounds rather than having a barrister in a position they should not be in,” Murphy says, telling the committee that the issue of criminalisation must be addressed.

Murphy says the committee heard very convincing evidence that they shouldn’t separate physical health from mental health.

She also reminds the committee that they were told it takes 865 days on average to prosecute rape.

“The gestation period on request is the way to go,” according to Murphy, in order to avoid revictimising people.

“The most important thing is that we do right by the women of Ireland who require healthcare when they’re pregnant,” Catherine Murphy says.

She talks about evidence from constitutional lawyer Mary O’Toole:


She said the only time a woman was considered in terms of rights was where her right to life was at risk. What husband would want that for her life? What children would want that for their mother? wWhat mother would want that for her daughter? That is how horrific it is.

Mattie McGrath is up next to speak.

He accuses the Citizens Assembley of voting “overwhelmingly to undermine the rights of the unborn”.

He says it was “depressingly choreographed” to make it seem like it was actually an exercise in democracy.

If there’s one thing pro-life people have learned, McGrath says, it is that efforts to liberalise abortion matter more than than establishing facts.

This process was never about arriving at balanced legislation in the interests of both mother and babies, he tells the committee.

McGrath says he does not think the committee was conducted fairly. The vast majority of witnesses were advocating for abortion, according to McGrath.

He also says it was “wholly inappropriate” that Catherine Noone attended a committee debating abortion last week in the UK.

“I’m a member of that committee I’m expected to be there,” Noone says.

She points out that there were people on both sides of the debate in attendance at that committee.

“Most people’s considered opinion would be that you are incorrect in your opinion,” Noone tells McGrath.

An argument has broken out now between Noone, Ronan Mullen and McGrath who has accused her of being biased.

All quiet again now and it is Hildegarde Naughten’s turn to speak.

She tells the committee that she agrees with the recommendation that abortion be decriminalised.

In the case of rape and incest, she says, they heard valuable evidence from witnesses about the “perils of trying to provide grounds” for access in these specific cases.

Like other speakers, she believes there needs to be a holistic approach to sex education.

Billy Kelleher says he had full confidence in how business was conducted by the committee and rejects any suggestion of bias.

Many of the organisations were professional bodies, expressing professional views, he says.

“A straight repeal of the amendment is the most practical way to go about advancing this issue,” according to Kelleher.

“We have to have confidence and trust in our women and girls in this country,” Kelleher tells the committee.

He says he is not necessarily comfortable himself with the idea of terminations, but the reality is there are 5,000 abortions carried out a year.

Criminalisation, he points out, discourages people from seeking medical attention.

He worries about a situation in which a young girl “frightful, alone, not knowing where to turn” would be lying in bed after taking [abortion] tablets “not being able to seek medical attention”.

Bernard Durkan is addressing the committee now.

He says they have discovered a number of issues that need to be improved, voids in the system.

For example, the “extreme lack of counselling and support for women in a crisis pregnancy”.

In the past, he says, the country “cast out” and regarded women in crisis pregnancy situations as “inferior”.

“Hopefully we can learn lessons and not to allow those things to happen again.”

I’m not in favour of abortion, but over the years it would appear to me there are reasons now why particular issues need to be addressed.

“The issue has been raised of the right to life of the unborn and we have to treat that seriously,” Durkan says.

He says there has to be ”a certain amount of equality, but there should be a clear divide”.

Durkan speaks about children with Down’s syndrome.

“People are concerned about possibly an attempt to deal with the Down’s syndrome children in a way that they wouldn’t find acceptable.”

Durkan says again that he is not in favour of abortion, but he recognises there is “a need for change to accommodate the evolution of society”.

Jonathan O’Brien is next to speak.

He outlines the four options the committee heard in terms of termination in cases of rape.

“Where other countries have dealt with this there were four possible ways of legislating.

Certification process by judges, certification process done by law enforcement, the third is certification done by medical professionals, the fourth was to have unrestricted access to a termination up to 12 weeks.”

O’Brien suggests that next week the committee starts with a vote on whether or not to repeal the amendment. If the majority vote in favour of this, that will be the first module complete.

Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte says there was “an awful lot of very good information” before the committee from experts.

She says it wasn’t biased.

“They came in here to do their job, to present the bare facts as they are.”

She said what really stood out for her in all of this was the discussion around criminalisation and how that would discourage women from seeking help or healthcare.

“I don’t think anybody should feel alone without anybody to turn to.”

Rabbitte’s one upset, she said, was that the committee did not hear from more people on the pro-life side.

The said the vote taken by the committee not to retain the amendment in full may have been premature.

“It was a really emotive debate, but we have a duty of care to the general public because it is going to a referendum,” she said.

Three generations haven’t had a chance to vote on it. And I believe in a democracy.

The wording is important, she says, but people have to vote.

“I can’t say I enjoyed it. I was challenged by this committee,” Rabbitte tells the committee.

Senator Paul Gavan says he remembers the last referendum on this issue in 1983, and being ostracised because he campaigned against the Eighth Amendment.

He talks about a “nice girl” who he used to see on the bus and who disappeared one day.

“We just never saw her again,” he tells the committee, adding that everyone assumed she was pregnant.

“Our society made them disappear.”

Some people, he said, want to bring us back to those days.

He believes in a “simple and straight” repeal.

“I think most people on this committee are prepared to trust women and by God shouldn’t we be able to do that?” Gavan says.

Senator Ned O’Sullivan says he did not have a set view before this committee sat, but he does now, and he believes it is also an informed view.

“What’s going to inform me next Wednesday is first and foremost, my respect for women,” he says.

It has been a growing awareness an unerring awareness that what is primary in this debate is women’s health, women’s welfare.

O’Sullivan says that as a man he feels “somewhat a fraud pontificating” on an issue that be believes should be a decision for a woman.

Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers tells the committee that “some of the personal testimonies were difficult to listen to and very upsetting”.

She is disappointed to see that certain witnesses are being pinned as either pro-life or pro-choice. They were simply presenting the facts, Chambers says.

“It would be naive of us to think that women are not having abortions,” she continues.

In our country on our statute books we have a law that says they should be locked up for 14 years.

She finds this “abhorrent”. In her opinion, there should be a simple repeal of the amendment and “allow the House to legislation” as that is what they were elected to do.

Chambers says some of the representations on this issue that she has received have been “vicious, threatening, abusive, very personal”.

She hopes that there can be mutual respect in a referendum debate.

And now it is Ronan Mullen’s turn to speak.

He starts by stating he believes “this committee failed to check against its own majority bias” and that a swath of issues were ignored.

“The abortion supporting majority did not see as a necessary thing” to hear about certain issues, he says, like families who believe the lives of their loved ones had been saved by the amendment.

Mullen said the vote by the committee not to retain the amendment discouraged people of a certain view from participating in this process.

He says there was “a catalogue of failure in terms of getting us the broadest range of evidence on this life or death issue”.

Mullen says it gives him no pleasure to criticise chair Catherine Noone. But he’s going to anyway.

He believes her tweeting about this issue was “inappropriate”.

Mullen also says the testimony from experts leaned towards unrestricted abortion as they were not in favour of limitations.

On the issue of decriminalisation, Mullen says he wants it on record that he would never want to see a woman targeted by criminal law in “what are already very difficult situations”.

This provision exists, he says, “to prevent certain behaviour that can hurt people themselves or hurt others”. And it has never been used against a woman here.

“I also would like to think that I trust men and women equally in my society that I live in,” he said.

“But the reason we have laws in society is to back up trust with precaution.”

He says surely it would be possible to enact legislation that would allow a person to seek medical help without sanction after they have undergone a procedure that was against the law.

Louise O’Reilly takes aim at Mullen. She says the committee has heard his points and has heard them “comprehensively challenged and contradicted and debunked by the very simple facts”.

We’ve heard from the masters of our maternity hospitals – the men and women we trust to look after us as women, our daughters, our friends.

“We have heard from them that the Eighth Amendment is an impediment to them doing their job” she said.

Kate O’Connell is speaking next and she discusses the issue of rape, as it is often cited as grounds to allow a termination.

More than four in ten women have reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. The most serious form, penetrative rape, was experienced by 10% of all women.

“Because these women had a man and then a pregnancy forced upon them by virtue of the suffering they endured” some are suggesting they should be entitled to an abortion.

 Why must a woman suffer, be violated and be terrorised before people feel compassion for them?

The majority of people were neither born nor eligible to vote in the last referendum on this issue, O’Connell tells the committee.

She says even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was only four years old at the time.

O’Connell will also be supporting a straight repeal.

“I trust women and I trust doctors,” she says, adding that the volume of evidence leaves them no choice but to do so.

Catherine Noone says the committee still has an awful lot of work to do and as much of it as possible will be “transparent and public”.

She said it is important not to lose sight of the report from the Citizens’ Assembly and that they should be clear in their own report about what any legislation should look like.

The committee is breaking now for a vote and will be back shortly.

The committee is back and is now discussing the process for how to proceed next week.

Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien earlier suggested the committee vote next week on the simple repeal before they go any further.

However, Catherine Noone says there should be a (brief) discussion about this at the start of next week’s session when everyone is present.

So that’s it for this evening from the Eighth Amendment Committee – and from us.

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