Citizens’ Assembly was not ‘misled’ on abortion, says judge

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy rejects claim that assembly was coaxed into ‘liberal’ stance

After the summer recess the Dáil returned to protests over the Eight Amendment and the ongoing homelessness crisis.

 

The growing use of abortion pills by women in Ireland should be looked at by the Oireachtas committee examining the Eighth Amendment, Citizens’ Assembly chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Laffoy has said.

She told the first public session of the committee she did not think the topic of abortion pills had been covered sufficiently by the assembly.

“I think that is a factor that you should look at. That’s something that concerns me,” she said.

Ms Justice Laffoy said she had become concerned when, after the assembly’s report was prepared, the HSE put up-to-date statistics online which revealed the number of women travelling to the UK and the Netherlands for abortions had reduced.

In contrast, she said, the number of women making contact with abortion pill providers was growing.

Committee chairwoman Senator Catherine Noone of Fine Gael confirmed the committee would be hearing from experts on the matter.

Ms Justice Laffoy was asked by Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell how she responded to the accusation that assembly members were “somehow misled into voting as liberally as they did”.

Ms Justice Laffoy said she genuinely did not believe that that was the case.

She said the process was transparent and “nothing was hidden”. Her assessment was that the process was fair, balanced and impartial.

‘Liberal approach’

“It did not mislead the citizens, and it was not responsible for a liberal approach.”

Listen to Inside Politics

Anti-abortion campaigners outside Leinster House, as the first public meeting of the Dail Committee on the Eighth Amendment opened. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Anti-abortion campaigners outside Leinster House, as the first public meeting of the Dail Committee on the Eighth Amendment opened. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Independent Senator Ronan Mullen defended the Eighth Amendment, saying “thousands of lives have been saved by having this amendment”.

He argued representatives of certain bodies which appeared before the assembly, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) were “not neutral” and said it was inevitable they would attempt to “sanitise” abortion.

Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick said he was “personally shocked” that 64 per cent of assembly members recommended the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful.

Earlier, Ms Justice Laffoy stressed the “legitimacy” of the assembly’s recommendations.

She said evidence provided to the assembly members was informative and evidence-based, and information put forward was based on facts and expert testimony.

“I believe the legitimacy of the Assembly’s recommendations is built upon the robust process applied to our consideration of the topic.”

She said it was essential that the Oireachtas understood the backdrop to these decisions and the context in which those recommendations were made “in this very complex area of law”.

Ms Justice Laffoy stressed it was the assembly’s role to make recommendations but the duty of the Oireachtas to legislate. “I do not underestimate the difficult task facing you as politicians in considering this topic further,” she added.

The 21-member cross-party committee of TDs and Senators, chaired by Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, is tasked with formulating the wording of the referendum to be held next year.

The committee was established to consider the assembly’s report, published in June, and its recommendations on the Eighth Amendment, which enshrined the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn into the Constitution in 1983.

First step

“Each of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly must now be considered by the joint committee as a first step in considering the likely shape of legislation both in this area and on the broader issue of the amendment of the Constitution,” Ms Noone said.

The committee met in private in Leinster House at 1.30pm, with the public session starting at 2pm.

In her address to the committee, Ms Laffoy summarised the assembly’s recommendations, including that 64 per cent of members recommended that the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful.

The majority voted to remove article 40.3.3° from the Constitution.

For the avoidance of doubt, they wanted the article replaced 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.

The Fine Gael TDs on the committee are Hildegarde Naughton, Bernard Durkan, Kate O’Connell and Peter Fitzpatrick.

Fianna Fáil is represented by Anne Rabbitte, Billy Kelleher, James Browne and Lisa Chambers.

Sinn Féin deputies Jonathan O’Brien and Louise O’Reilly are on the committee, as is Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan.

The other TDs are: Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats; Clare Daly of Independents 4 Change; Independent Mattie McGrath and Ruth Coppinger, representing Solidarity-People Before Profit.

The Senators are Ms Noone and Jerry Buttimer of Fine Gael; Ned O’Sullivan of Fianna Fáil; Sinn Féin’s Paul Gavan and Independents Ronán Mullen and Lynn Ruane.

The committee will meet again next Wednesday at 1.30pm to discuss the constitutional issues raised by the assembly’s report.