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Children's Minister says Irish women will never have autonomy until the Eighth is repealed

Minister Katherine Zappone is making a speech at the opening of the Kennedy Summer School.

The Children's Minister is giving a speech at the Kennedy Summer School this evening
The Children's Minister is giving a speech at the Kennedy Summer School this evening
Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

MINISTER FOR CHILDREN Katherine Zappone is due to say in a speech tonight that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution “oppresses women” with the “burden of choicelessness”.

The independent TD for Dublin South-West is due to speak at the official opening of the Kennedy Summer School in New Ross this evening.

The Eighth Amendment - which guarantees the right to life of the unborn - is set to appear prominently on the political agenda over the next year, with Leo Varadkar’s government promising a referendum on the matter in the first half of 2018.

According to a pre-released version of the text of her speech, Zappone will reference the topic while discussing the responsibilities that come with sitting at the Cabinet table.

As an independent, she says:

“As a lone voice, I strive to put the stamp of my fellow campaigners on every area of policy. Equality is a rich and complex concept… it is being empowered to see, take, and benefit from opportunities that arise.

This often requires hard conversations and hard work. One of those hard conversations is about the Eighth Amendment, which denies women full reproductive rights.

Zappone believes that the Eighth “oppresses us with the burden of choicelessness”, and that it is about “the ability to decide what is done to our bodies, including in pregnancy and in labour”.

“That is why repealing the Eighth Amendment is about reproductive rights for all women, including those who want to continue with their pregnancies.”

The Children’s Minister will say that thousands of women have travelled abroad to access an abortion, and that an unknown number continued with pregnancies “against their will”.

As long as the Constitution treats a foetus as equal to a woman, her autonomy can be nothing more than a myth.

She says that cases where women died or suffered because they could not or did not travel abroad are “not ‘mere’ tragedies”. They are the “product of our constitutional, and legal structures, of the failure to provide political leadership”.

Zappone says that we must “trust women to make decisions for themselves and their families, and ensure that our structures mean those decisions really are choices”.

She adds:

Without repealing the Eighth Amendment and the clear establishment of reproductive rights for all, those who can become pregnant in Ireland will be unequal to those who cannot. That situation simply cannot persist.

Next steps for the Eighth

A specially-convened Oireachtas committee is set to discuss a future referendum on the Eighth Amendment in the coming weeks.

The views of the Citizens’ Assembly are set to feature heavily in the discussions of the committee. In April, the assembly recommended replacing or amending the Eighth as it currently exists.

The committee will hear submissions on the medical and legal bases for changing Ireland’s abortion laws and prepare a report on its findings.

It will then be up to the government to decide on a wording to be put to the people in a referendum on the Eighth.

The referendum is expected to take place next June.

You can find the full text of Minister’s Zappone’s speech below:

It is an honour to be a part of this great evening.

We gather not just to celebrate the start of the 2017 Kennedy Summer School, but also to mark 100-years since the birth of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The fact that it is just 100-years since his birth reminds us that his was a life cut tragically short – and that he was a leader with so much more to give.

Indeed if somehow the events of that infamous day in Dallas had not taken place it is easy to imagine that JFK could have been with us as an elder statesman, a guiding hand through the turbulent times which marked the start of this century.

There is no doubt he would be rowing in on climate change, the war on terror and even the domestic political, social and economic turbulence which our own country continues to emerge from.

However despite his passing we can take great encouragement that the Kennedy legacy and vision lives on.

In fact it is needed even more in these uncertain times of the Trump administration, Brexit and a world where millions of people are forced to flee from their homes.

It lives on through his writings, his speeches and gatherings such as this.

As if foretelling that his own leadership would be for a limited time President Kennedy wrote in his memoirs of passing the torch to a ‘new generation’.

I was part of that generation – as indeed were many not just in the US but right across the globe.

Ours was a strong Democratic household so it is perhaps no surprise that I have no hesitation in attributing the origins of my progressive ideals and practice to the Kennedy era.

It was a time of great political and social leaders sparking unprecedented public debate – it was a time when old ideas were challenged, uncertainty was often in the air.

For a young campaigner, student and thinker it was an exciting time during which my mind was opened.

It informed my policies, shaped my vision and gave me my voice as a campaigner, a feminist, an agent of social change – and now places me as the only independent woman sitting at the cabinet table.

Independent and progressive

I am a progressive, and by choice I am an independent TD.

What I want to do this evening is outline how this impacts on my work in government.

Independence is a description both of who I am, and what I am freed from.

I am an immigrant to Ireland, the great-grand child of Irish emigrants.

For over 30 years I worked alongside my spouse, my Ann Louise, to connect local women, and men, in Tallaght West to each other.

It was the founding days of what has now become An Cosán, the biggest community development organisation in the country.

From those early days we put together the supports, the shared experiences, the acknowledgement of potential which not only created opportunity for women and men– but for their children.

The impact continues today – not just in Tallaght West but across the country.

We worked to establish basic human rights with respect to gender, social class and the LBGT community. We were never stifled by the legacy of ideology, the jaundiced views of party politics or the shackles of the establishment.

These are the experiences which shape my political outlook. I am free to think ahead.

Thinking about the future means listening and developing conversations with the people of Ireland about the things that matter to them.

For three decades I have talked to, listened and campaigned with the people of Ireland.

I know our communities are resilient and able but Government needs to create the environment in which individuals, community and society can flourish and people can make real choices.

This will be an entrepreneurial state, one that can create the conditions for a common good and accelerate human development.

Every day people tell me they are frightened and feel insecure. They are working to survive day to day.

Tonight over 200,000 families are in fear of losing their home. They are one unexpected expense away from being homeless.

Progressive politics tells us this requires radical solutions.

Connection, the promotion of human agency and championing shared human rights, these are the approaches which can give us a vibrant democracy.

It is an approach which gave us our Peace Process and more recently Marriage Equality.

A Republic of equals

Serving as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is the greatest honour of my life.

The best part of my job is the engagement I have with children and young people.

It happened when I was in Athlone on Monday, it will happen at St Mary’s Secondary School in New Ross tomorrow morning and again when I visit Waterford tomorrow afternoon.

What is coming through not just from this engagement, but also from research commissioned by my Department and indeed independent research – is the thirst not only for a ‘Republic of Opportunity’ but also a ‘Republic of Equals’.

These are not contradictory but at times the territory of conflict.

It is my firm view that the vision of equality compliments one of opportunity.

But a genuine ‘Republic of Opportunity’ cannot happen unless we ensure equality and fairness for all.

To achieve a ‘Republic of Equals’ there are challenges which must be met.

In my own direct area of work we are finding that many children in greatest need do not get help from public services.

Sometimes because they don’t know about the support available. Sometimes because the families or the young people themselves don’t want it. Often because public services don’t know about them.

We also know that most children in greatest need are supported at home or in their community, and more needs to be done to cultivate and sustain this support.

When communities come under too much pressure, relationships become corrosive and family, neighbourhoods even society breaks down.

My department commissioned research at the University of Limerick that shows how patterns of youth offending reflect unhealthy social networks in highly disadvantaged communities.

The solution here is not a programme or a punishment, but putting in place the networks which allow our young people to flourish.

I see around the country how sport, creativity and adventure provided for young people through the efforts of dedicated community workers and volunteers can transform or restart lives.

It is work supported by my office – with 57-million euro this year.

But we need so much more – and there are communities who are calling out for more. We must as a Government answer that call.

My belief in equality is also central to my approach to childcare.

A recent EU review of Ireland’s social inclusion policies concluded that ‘Childcare is extremely expensive, and it has a strong social class gradient.

I believe that accessible affordable quality childcare is a driver of equality.

We have taken the first steps. This year investment is €466m euro, an 80% increase since 2015.

All children under 3 can receive childcare supports and we are providing additional significant support to children aged up to 15 whose families need it the most. Those who earn less, receive more. We are pooling our public funds to enhance children’s equity of opportunity.

This package is one step to a Republic of Equals and a Republic of Opportunity.

That is not to say that we are anywhere near the international norm on childcare.

If were to reach the OECD average we would be investing €1.6 billion this year. In addition to the safeguards and protection of our children, there would be a workforce with fair pay and conditions. In other words a new deal for childcare workers.

To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt If I were a childcare worker I would join a union.

As an independent woman, as a progressive and as a believer of equality I will be putting forward proposals during this budget process.

Overall we must constantly look out for ways to level the playing field for all our children, our families and all our people.

Capital Spending

Levelling the playing field requires spending.

There is a critical category of spending we must focus on for the next ten years.

It is capital spending. It must be our priority.

Capital spending today is only 40 per cent of what it was in 2008.

We need to spend more. Following discussions with Minister Paschal Donohoe and at Cabinet I am happy that we are moving in the right direction. This is progressive politics.

Capital spending changes the structure of our society. It creates conditions in which everyone benefits. I see nothing but opportunity here.

This is what my progressive voice can achieve.

Investing in Research

Spending on Research and Development is investing in the future and a form of capital spend.

Knowledge is the lever of riches.

We call ourselves the silicon valley of Europe – in fact we are behind the rest of the world, not even at the races.
Per person we invest half of Germany, less than half of Sweden and a third of Denmark. This is a false economy.

Our R&D facilities should aspire to beat the world. Business, Higher and Further Education, and government all have a role to play. It is also a way to spread our spend more equally throughout the regions.

We can develop our cities into research hubs. Cork for pharmaceuticals, Limerick for IT and Galway for Medical Devices. And of course – my own constituency Tallaght for data and medical research.

This is where I am determined our capital spend must go.

Investing in our people, our communities and our country is one thing – but a Republic of Equals means more.

Reproductive Rights

Sitting around the cabinet table comes with wider responsibilities than leading a department and one area of policy.

This is particularly true for independents and progressives.

As a lone voice I strive to put the stamp of my fellow campaigners on every area of policy.

Equality is a rich and complex concept.

So much more than protections and guarantees, it is being empowered to see, take, and benefit from opportunities that arise.

This often requires hard conversations and hard work.

One of those hard conversations is about the 8th amendment, which denies women full reproductive rights.

Instead, it oppresses us with the burden of choicelessness.

Choicelessness is not only about the ability to decide whether to remain pregnant, but about the ability to decide what is done to our bodies, including in pregnancy and labour.

That is why repealing the 8th amendment is about reproductive rights for all women, including those who want to continue with their pregnancies.

Of course, for those who don’t the 8th Amendment means they cannot access abortion in Ireland.

As we know every year thousands travel, unknown numbers import and take the abortion pill, and more still self-harm to end their pregnancies.

We do not know how many thousands of women have continued with pregnancies against their will since 1983.

We do know that women without means, without visas, without freedom from abusive and oppressive partners are denied their rights.

As long as the Constitution treats a foetus as equal to a woman, her autonomy can be nothing more than a myth.

The availability of abortion in England has allowed generations of politicians to avoid this hard conversation.

While the deaths and suffering of those who cannot or do not travel are lamented as tragedies.

But they are not ‘mere’ tragedies; they are the product of our constitutional, and legal structures, of the failure to provide political leadership.

Any basic conception of justice demands that this be put right.

I know this raises complex questions that trouble many, and I acknowledge and respect that.

However they are also questions on which no consensus can be reached.

As a woman, a progressive, a campaigner and a Government Minister I firmly believe we need a system of Reproductive Justice – which must include a referendum on reproductive rights.

We must trust women to make decisions for themselves and their families, and ensure that our structures mean those decisions really are choices.

True reproductive justice means building a society where the care of children is a collective effort, properly supported by the state.

It is about providing a roof over the head of every family and food on their plates.

It is a country where sex education is effective and universal where contraception is available and affordable

It is a society in which there are as few as possible unwanted pregnancies and as few as possible unwanted abortions.

The referendum next year will be part but not all of ensuring reproductive justice in Ireland.

Without repealing the 8th amendment and the clear establishment of reproductive rights for all, those who can become pregnant in Ireland will be unequal to those who cannot.

That situation simply cannot persist.

Conclusion

Those of you who have travelled to New Ross – and indeed those of you from the South East, who maybe even have some of that Kennedy blood flowing in your veins have much to consider in the coming days.

There are many other areas I could address, the importance of youth mental health, the impact of Brexit on our young people and the current global uncertainty.

Our time is limited – so I will leave you with the words of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in a special message to Congress in February 1962

“For one true measure of a nation is its success in fulfilling the promise of a better life for each of its members. Let this be the measure of our nation.”

With that thought – it is my honour, my privilege to declare the 2017 Kennedy Summer School open.

Read: Bishops have ‘constructive’ meeting with Varadkar and ministers

Read: With young people in ‘Repeal’ jumpers beside him, Leo Varadkar was asked about the Eighth in Belfast today

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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