Breda O’Brien: Citizens’ Assembly is being misled on abortion

The assembly is badly compromised by choice of speakers and framing of issues

The Citizens' Assembly may surprise us all yet, but the signs are not good so far. However, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy showed herself to be a woman of principle in the past, when she resigned from the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse because she felt the Government had made it impossible to carry out her work with integrity.

However, some of the choices of speakers to address the Citizens’ Assembly have been highly questionable.

Take just one: Patricia Lohr, medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which carries out most abortions in England and Wales.

Dr Lohr was asked to explain how an Irishwoman’s experience of abortion differed from that of a UK resident.


That is a little like inviting the Philip Morris tobacco company to compare the experience of those who smoke Marlboro with those who smoke Benson & Hedges.

BPAS is not a disinterested spectator, but an abortion provider whose stated aim is to increase the numbers of abortions that it provides. Dr Lohr described BPAS as a charitable provider of abortion.

The goals of this charity for 2016/2017, as set out in its trustees' last annual report, include increasing the proportion of UK abortions that BPAS provides. It also aims to have a financial performance in line with agreed budgets that will produce "the required surplus".

The final one is to “build on BPAS’s position as internationally recognised thought leaders in reproductive and sexual health [in order to] influence public policy”.

Market share

In short, BPAS is an organisation with overt aims of increasing its market share and income, and influencing public policy so that there will be more abortions.

Its total 2016 income was more than £29 million (€34 million), most of it public money from NHS contracts as abortion providers.

It has five people in the organisation who earn more than £100,000 a year, with the top paid person earning £160,000-£170,000. The British prime minister earns £143,462 a year.

None of this might fit with people’s general understanding of a charity, but just because dividends are not created for shareholders does not mean that some people do not benefit from a charity’s existence.

Funny enough, Dr Lohr did not mention that the BPAS clinic in Liverpool had received a damning report in 2016 from the British Care Quality Commission.

According to the report, in a 15-month period the clinic, which has Irish clients, had had 11 serious incident reports, in which women were transferred for emergency medical care to hospital following abortions.

There was no adequate system in place to ensure resuscitation care, and poor practice in relation to medication and risks of cross infection, the report said. In this clinic alone in 2015, 96 abortions were carried out after 20 weeks.

Act of killing

BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi unequivocally recognises that while abortion "may be an act of killing", killing is justified because the moral status of the foetus is not sufficient to protect his or her right to life.

BPAS also opposed a law that would definitively outlaw sex-selection abortions.

For BPAS, it is fine to abort girls in order to protect women’s autonomy, a moral position that would border on farce if it were not so deadly serious.

The company also want to scrap the legal requirement for two doctors to declare that a woman is entitled to an abortion, even though that requirement is widely acknowledged to be merely a matter of form at this stage.

It is not surprising that when Dr Lohr sensitively laid out the difficulties facing Siobhán (an imaginary Irish woman) in comparison with Charlotte (an imaginary British woman) that she used the word “baby” just once.

This was when she talked about women having late abortions, who had decided to “have the baby but had to re-visit that decision”.

Until then, she had used every euphemism in the book to veil the reality that an unborn child dies in every abortion.

The only way to balance an input from an organisation seeking to increase market share would have been to follow it immediately with input on the Eighth Amendment from a young adult whose mother did not terminate her because she would have had to travel, or from a mother accompanied by her child who had been saved by the Eighth Amendment.

Easy to influence

The Citizens' Assembly is a flawed model because, as we have known since 1972 from the pioneering work of Yale social psychologist Irving L Janis, it is amazingly easy to influence the outcomes of groups by the choice of speakers, by the impact of dominant personalities, and by framing.

Take, for example, the title of one session: “Ethical Perspectives – Reproductive Autonomy”. This is a classic example of framing.

By using the term “reproductive autonomy”, you are accepting a frame set by abortion advocates, which is that this issue is only about adult autonomy.

Imagine if it were instead called “The Human Rights Implications of the Eighth Amendment”.

People are being nudged by the first title in one direction. The second allows for two perspectives to be considered.

Mary Laffoy is a woman of integrity. In this matter of life and death, integrity was never more needed.