TDs and Senators have been urged to treat the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on abortion “with the respect and due consideration they deserve” by chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Laffoy.
The 21 members of the cross-party committee on the Eighth Amendment have one week to digest Justice Laffoy’s report before they meet in private for only the second time next Wednesday.
One of the main tasks of the the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, chaired by Senator Catherine Noone of Fine Gael, will be to formulate the wording of the referendum to be held next year.
The campaign will inevitably be ugly and divisive and there are political sensitivities involved, not least because Pope Francis is due to visit Ireland in the summer of 2018.
However, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has already said the Eighth Amendment, which enshrined the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn into the Constitution in 1983, should be replaced with something else because it is too restrictive.
Ms Noone’s plan is to hold another private meeting before the Dáil returns on September 19th, with a public meeting pencilled in for that week.
The committee has a deadline of three months from its first public meeting to complete its work, so Ms Noone hopes to conclude by Christmas.
No executive summary was provided for the benefit of the committee members when the report was published on Thursday.
Instead, the retired judge and her secretariat produced an 83-page document and two large volumes of appendices running to almost 1,000 pages and containing all the complex facts and expert testimony absorbed by the citizens.
Praising the assembly members for taking to their role with the utmost seriousness and dedication, Justice Laffoy urged TDs and Senators, and indeed anyone with an interest in the topic, to read all the material in full.
“I urge the members of the Oireachtas to view their recommendations with the respect and due consideration they deserve,” she said.
Ms Noone said none of the members she had spoken to so far had any desire to “redo the work of the Citizens’ Assembly” by inviting various advocacy groups to address the committee.
The assembly members’ clear view that Ireland’s strict abortion laws should be liberalised significantly surprised many in Leinster House, where a perception has taken hold that the findings do not reflect the views of most Irish people.
Liberalising abortion laws
Some make the point that the bulk of those who vote in the upcoming referendum will not be as informed as those who participated in the deliberative assembly process.
The committee is considered to have a majority in favour of liberalising abortion laws to some degree.
Ms Noone and her Fine Gael colleague Kate O’Connell; Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly and Senator Paul Gavin; Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan; Social Democrats’ Catherine Murphy; Independents4Change’s Clare Daly; Independent Senator Lynn Ruane and Solidarity’s Ruth Coppinger are pro-choice.
Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick, Independents TD Mattie McGrath and Senator Ronan Mullen are anti-abortion. Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte and James Brown, and Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton, hold conservative views.
Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers and Billy Kelleher are considered more liberal, while Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brief has said that he is “not in favour of abortion” but would leave his personal views “at the gate”. Also on the committee are Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan and Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan.