Miriam Lord: Yes, Taoiseach, abortion is not black and white

Kenny gets one thing right when confronted about repealing Eighth Amendment

Members of the AAA-PBP group of TDs have worn sweaters displaying the slogan 'REPEAL' in the Dáil chamber as Dublin West TD Ruth Coppinger raised the issue of abortion during leaders’ questions.

 

It has become the protest garment of choice. A simple black sweatshirt with “Repeal” written in large white letters across the chest. Selling like hotcakes, apparently.

Few will have looked upon the six TDs wearing their “Repeal” sweatshirts into the Dáil chamber and considered them brave. Although in terms of the Dáil’s fusty and often ridiculous approach to matters of decorum, Tuesday’s decision by members of the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit to model the article of clothing that has become synonymous with the pro-choice movement was audacious.

Depending on your point of view, they were either behaving reprehensibly or striking a blow for the tens of thousands of Irish women forced to leave this country to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Ministers on the Fine Gael benches, directly across the floor from Ruth Coppinger and Bríd Smith, Richard Boyd-Barrett, Gino Kenny, Mick Barry and Paul Murphy, pretended to ignore the little group opposite.

The deputies arrived in with their jackets on, waiting for their chance to do the Big Reveal.

To the left of the Disobedient Half-Dozen were the Fianna Fáilers, also affecting not to notice. But they all did.

Behind the scenes, pre-budget meetings continued, but the AAA-PBP people were concerned with the moment. Or, at least, last weekend, when thousands of people from all over the country – the majority of them young – marched through Dublin on a miserable afternoon demanding a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which values a woman’s life on an equal level with the foetus in her womb.

Most of those marchers have never voted on anything to do with the availability of abortion in Ireland. They want that chance now.

Coppinger pointed out to the Taoiseach that 25,000 people turned out on Saturday, demanding to be heard.

‘Divided opinions’

Naturally, he spoke to some of those who took part, because that is what Enda always says he does. “And obviously they made their views very clear but there are very divided opinions on this subject.”

So, wondered Coppinger, was does he intend to do? It wasn’t lost on her that Kenny has been knocking around the political block a while, and was in Dáil Éireann more than 30 years ago when the Eighth Amendment was passed. She was particularly worried that, for all the talk of possible movement on the question, that the Government would try to replace the current provision in the Constitution with a new clause.

“Why, after the tragedies, the folly of putting something in the Constitution equating a woman with a foetus, why would you seriously contemplate putting something else there, policing women’s bodies?”

General Pinochet’s Chile, she observed, is the only other country to have used its constitution for such a purpose.

“You’ve been here since 1975,” she reminded Enda. “But during that time a total of 165,000 women had to travel outside the State for an abortion while you were in the Dáil. Did you ever give those women a second thought when you were making decisions?”

It wasn’t until she finished her first question and the Taoiseach was making his reply that her five colleagues removed their jackets. They would later explain that they feared they might be asked to leave and Ruth may not have been able to get her point across if they entered the chamber wearing the controversial “Repeal” sweaters.

“You describe the insertion into the Constitution by the people as a ‘tragedy’. Unfortunately, the Constitution belongs to the people,” he replied, adding that he actually “happened to be here” when the Dáil legislated on abortion with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

“And I do happen to listen to the many stories, many tragic stories indeed, in recent times, of women.”

Courage

At which point the Taoiseach introduced courage. The courage of the people his Government have chosen to carry the can on its behalf. The people “99 citizens, from locations around the country: men and women of different age groups” who will “to tease out the questions surrounding the Eighth Amendment”.

He thinks they will do a great job.

“Depending” on the outcome of their deliberations, the Oireachtas will decide how to “proceed from them”.

You see, there is so much to discuss. So many sensitive issues to confront. “I think it’s a very reasonable thing in Ireland in 2016 to allow people on all sides to make their contribution on an issue that is and has always has been quite divisive.”

He is of the view that the members of the assembly (chosen by a polling company) are nothing short of heroic.

“I admire the courage of those 99 who have stepped forward to say: I will participate in this discussion – not an easy thing for many of them to do, given the nature of the divisive response that can come from participating in something like this. I admire their courage in doing that.”

As opposed to that citizens’ assembly chosen by all the citizens of Ireland earlier this year in a quaint process known as “a general election” where members appear not to have the courage to discuss an issue that has been on the agenda for decades now.

The Taoiseach, to be fair, came up with a great line as he looked across at the six TDs. “I respect you completely,” he told them, “but it is not a black and white situation. The T-shirts might be black with the writing in white but this is about people and they’ve all got different views.”

Enda hit the nail on the head. It’s exactly because abortion is not black and white – anything but, that it shouldn’t be set down in black and white in a constitution that can only be changed by referendum.