Miriam Lord: A momentous day. A day some of us never thought we’d see
No denying magnitude of majority decision to support removal of Eighth Amendment
Wednesday, December 13th, Committee Room 3, Leinster House.
It’s 3.15 in the afternoon and something momentous has just occurred.
Bríd Smith, the People Before Profit TD, bunches up her hands and does a gleeful little jig in her seat, feet furiously drumming the floor. A number of her colleagues, male and female, from all parties, are smiling broadly.
In the gallery, there is a loud exhalation of breath, a few muffled squeaks of delight and the barest hint of a handclap not carried through.
Earlier, Smith had been out on the plinth anticipating the vote about to be taken by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment. “I think this is a very exciting day for women like myself who have been campaigning for 34 years,” she said. “It is historic. I’m very excited about it.”
She said she felt like the cow on the radio advert [for the charity, Bóthar]. The one which says: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
They got there eventually and, as is often the way, the committee’s hugely significant decision to recommend the removal from the Constitution of the Eighth Amendment on abortion happened in a rather low-key and uneventful fashion.
The Swedish ambassador was among members of the public watching on as the vote was taken. The result was never in doubt, nor was the inevitability that the three TDs who have opposed any change to the abortion regime in Ireland would continue their campaign of resistance.
Repealing the Amendment is inviting the Irish people to trust politicians, warned parliamentarian Ronán Mullen, thereby further endearing himself to almost all the members of the committee. Though he sees no contradiction in asking the public to trust in him.
As he spoke, Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick was engrossed in his script, his lips silently moving as he rehearsed it in his head.
He then talked in considerable detail about maternal death rates.
Finally, it was time. It was a roll-call vote. After each name, a Tá or a Níl or an abstention.
Níl, Tá, Tá, Tá, Níl, Tá, Tá, Tá, Tá . . .
This was no ordinary vote. To hear so many representatives from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael clearly calling for repeal was unprecedented. In the end, the result was 14 in favour and six against.
No big deal, some might think.
A very big deal, others will know.
Over the past three decades in Leinster House, the subject of abortion has been toxic. During the most recent high-profile airing of the issue – the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill – the atmosphere was highly-charged and the debates verged on vicious at times. Fine Gael lost TDs as a result. Politicians from the two main parties didn’t want to touch the issue with a bargepole.
When that Bill passed, many hoped it would be the last they’d hear of it in their political lifetime.
During the last election, they took refuge in wanton ignorance when asked if they favoured the repeal of the Eighth.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be able to give you a definitive answer on that, until I know the full facts . . . I’d be worried about the floodgates . . . I don’t know enough about it to comment . . .”
So the Citizens’ Assembly did the politicians’ work for them. The citizens listened to the doctors, the statisticians and the health professionals and they heard real-life testimonies from both sides of the debate. They recommended repeal, and the introduction of abortion with term limits.
The politicians convened in the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment to discuss the assembly’s findings – after the main parties eventually found enough willing participants. And over the last few months, unlike their blissfully ignorant colleagues, they too had to hear what health professionals – as opposed to interest groups – had to say.
And, guess what? They more or less agreed with the Citizens’ Assembly.
Which is how Wednesday’s votes came about.
The committee’s recommendations will frame the Dáil’s consideration of the matter.
This might explain the relatively understated contributions by the three anti-abortion committee members – TDs Mattie McGrath and Peter Fitzpatrick and Senator Ronán Mullen. While they spoke against the many amendments put forward, they didn’t really get stuck in.
As the Taoiseach said in another context recently, they know Wednesday’s votes are not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
Three Fianna Fáilers – Billy Kelleher, Lisa Chambers and Senator Ned O’Sullivan – voting for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks was utterly unthinkable a couple of years ago. But there they were. Also with them, two party colleagues – Anne Rabbitte and James Browne – who were voting a different way. They want to repeal the Eighth and replace it with new wording.
When Kelleher pointed out that the Fianna Fáil members acted in a personal capacity because their party is allowing a free vote in the Dáil, he was giving a pointer to the difficult times ahead.
Looking at the committee membership, one wondered if it is really representative of the majority in Leinster House? And how might it be possible to force TDs and Senators to equip themselves with the unvarnished information given to the Citizens’ Assembly and the committee.
Because for all they had already heard, members still argued over “facts”. Peter Fitzpatrick still talked about “a child’s heartbeat after three weeks” as Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell won the race to tell him, yet again, “there is not a heartbeat after three weeks . . . after seven weeks it’s a pulsating tube”.
With accompanying objections from the three amigos of the anti-abortion brigade, the group ploughed through women’s health, mental health, life, socio-economic circumstances, foetal abnormalities, rape and all other matters relevant to a woman in need of an abortion.
The committee finally went through the list and prepared to finish on “Ancillary Recommendations”. These included providing better access to contraception for women and improving sex education policy.
It had been a long day and Mullen finally lost his cool.
“I just want to put it on the record that I haven’t got an issue with the law of the land on non-abortifacient contraceptives,” he declared, before rounding on the committee for introducing “the public health dimension” in an attempt to “cloak” its decision to introduce abortion on demand.
He was decidedly ratty, complaining to committee chairwoman Catherine Noone that there was an attempt to close down the debate.
The long-suffering Noone was not to be told how to do her job. “I chair,” she declared, to approving murmurs around the table.
As Mullen continued to protest, Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien sighed, “You know what, just let him make a few points.”
Mullen said the committee’s points on contraption and sex education “basically come as part of an abortion package”.
This was too much for Fianna Fáil’s Ann Rabbitte, who took grave umbrage at his remarks.
“As a fellow human being, I stand by my point,” sulked Mullen.
Whereupon Senator Ned O’Sullivan exploded. How dare he come along with his “widespread insinuations and assertions and innuendo about the rest of us . . . there must be some sort of high moral ground that I don’t see”.
Mullen looked unconcerned.
“How dare you imply that I, or any other member here, has a less valid point to argue?”
And then this, as he eyeballed his fellow Senator: “Is he worried about contraception? Let him come out and say it.”
A momentous day.
A day some of us never thought we’d see.