Why did Citizens’ Assembly take liberal view on abortion?

For the first time, members of the assembly talk publicly about the process

There was much surprise in April when the results of the Citizens’ Assembly were announced.

The overwhelming vote in favour (87 per cent) of not retaining the Eighth Amendment in its present form was similar to recent opinion polls on the issue.

When it came to the substantive issue of abortion, though, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of the assembly members opted for “terminations without restrictions” – abortion on demand.

In an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in May, just 23 per cent of the public stated that abortion should be legal in all circumstances.


Why did members of the Citizens’ Assembly recommend a more liberal abortion regime than the Irish public would appear to want?

Seven members of the assembly agreed to be interviewed for The Irish Times about its outcome – two men and five women. Six voted in favour of not retaining the Eighth Amendment. Of those, five voted to allow for abortion in certain circumstances and one declined to state a preference in that regard. One declined to state how she voted.

Though not representative of the assembly as a whole, their views are reflective of those of a majority of the members. Indeed, of the 72 members of the assembly who gave their reflections for the final assembly report, just two expressed an avowedly anti-abortion stance.

John Long, a technician in his mid-50s from Cork city, said he was not "your typical pro-lifer". He would have supported abortion only in restricted circumstances such as rape before participating in the assembly.

The assembly changed his mind on the issue and he voted to allow for abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. "Abortion legislation in Ireland is in a little bubble," he explained, "I tried to stand outside the Irish bubble and look in. When I started to listen about termination legislation in other countries, I came to the conclusion that we should follow international best practice. It's a women's rights issue."

Mags Leamy (32), a pharmacist from north Cork, said she went in to the assembly with an open mind. “I don’t think we were totally liberal starting, but by the time that you have heard everything, you kind of realise it would be none of your business what Mary does down the road,” she said.

"Just because she is going to England doesn't mean it isn't happening. What we say about it at the end was that abortion was already happening so why not face facts and allow it?"

Impressive arguments

David Keogh, a HGV truck driver in his mid-40s living in Kildare town, said he had been impressed by the arguments made by both sides, but "it didn't deter from the fact that abortion is happening; that it is a reality. Why should women be treated like second-class citizens or criminals because they made a choice about their own wellbeing? The informed opinion was that, whether you like it or not, abortion is there so why not look after our own people rather than ship it out to everyone else?"

Similarly, Louise Caldwell (39) from Tara, Co Meath, said it became apparent to the members of the assembly that "we already have abortion in Ireland but it is only available to those with the means and ability to travel to the UK".

Ms Caldwell said the personal stories of women affected by the Eighth Amendment may have impacted on the members of the assembly.

“It is very difficult to sit through all of that and not have a more compassionate view,” she said. “It is important to state that if you get so much information and so many different scenarios presented, it is hard to see yourself in a situation where you would deny that person access to an abortion.”

Rebecca Doyle (25) from Co Clare said she voted to allow for abortion in all circumstances and she believed the Irish public would too if given the same information.

“I voted this way because after everything we heard I felt it to be right and the best choice for our country,” she said. “For me it just came down to who should have that choice and what should their options be. I believe that if other people were immersed in that process, in all of that information and the experiences of others that we heard, those polls would read very differently.”

All of those who spoke to The Irish Times said the assembly had been a worthwhile exercise and they had made their decisions in a reasonable and well-informed fashion. Noreen O'Flynn from Cork said she was persuaded by the facts presented at the assembly rather than by the emotive arguments on both sides. She declined to state how she had voted.

Non-partisan experts

Paula Geraghty (34) from Bray, Co Wicklow said the non-partisan experts such as Dr Peter McPartland, a consultant obstetrician who addressed the assembly, were more persuasive than those who took an adversarial stand on the issue. "They have had ample time to make their arguments over the years," she said.

Ms Geraghty echoed comments made many times by members of the assembly in Ms Justice Mary Laffoy’s report that the politicians must act on its recommendations.

“It would be a criminal waste of time if they don’t do something about this,” she said. “With some 99 people, give or take, participating and the amount of money that went into organising it, they have to do something.

“I would like to think that politicians will listen to us and will listen to the fact that we made our decision following reasoned consideration. They should allow the country to have a vote.”

Anti-abortion views were expressed in Ms Laffoy’s report. One citizen said the other assembly members had gone further than the public wanted.

“The focus has shifted totally to termination of pregnancy and I find this extremely worrying and in conflict with the overall meaning of our constitution.”

Another wrote: “My fear after the voting of this weekend is the complete lack of empathy for the unborn child. Not one mention of the consequences of destroying the lives of the most vulnerable – the baby in the womb who has no say on its future. Very disappointing.”