Over the last few weeks the Oirechtas committee on the 8th amendment has been in sessions receiving expert testimony as they consider the what changes to Ireland’s abortion regime they should recommend to the Dáil. IN this time the committee of (how many men and women) has read the Citizen’s Assembly recommendations and heard arguments from both sides. Here is what they’ve done so far:

The Speakers.

A point of contention between the pro-choice and pro-life sides on the committee has been the speakers being brought before the committee. Each member of the committee was given the chance to offer up potential speakers, provide justification for why they should address the committee and then explain any costs that may be associated with bringing them before the committee. The final decision made in the process will be made by the committee as a whole.

This all appeared to be a reasonable approach until October 12th when Senator Ronan Mullens and Mattie McGrath TD called the entire committee a ‘farce’ for calling what were in their opinion a majority of witness that are pro-choice. This has been a serious source of contention for the committee as Mullens and McGrath are claiming that expert legal and medical witness are in fact pushing a pro-choice agenda.

This was quite concerning for all members of the committee as these witnesses were meant to be presenting expert opinion in their respective fields to guide the committee in their deliberations as they prepare recommendations for the Dáil to consider. If they are in fact seen as bias, then the work of the entire committee could be seen as bias and therefore be undermined.

The Outside View

This accusation of bias has given the pro-life campaign groups a strong narrative to latch onto in an effort to discredit the committee. They have recognised that even as they prepare to fight the actual Referendum on the 8th, delaying the committee or making it so that people believe that it is only arriving at a pre-determinate conclusion is beneficial. The Dáil is typically viewed as more conservative than the populace and many in the Dáil are concerned about taking a firm position in regard to the 8th. For those on the fence, seeing the committee as bias given them a way to continue avoid the issue.

For the pro-choice campaigns they simply see this committee as an unacceptable delay. It is their belief that the Referendum should’ve been called long ago, and that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are simply kicking the can down the road. They further see the actions of Mullen’s and McGrath as distractions to delay the referendum and derail the entire process.

This places the committees chair Catherine Noone in a difficult position. If she can’t balance the demands of both groups on the committee, it is possible the entire process could collapse. If this were to happen the Dáil would need to find another way to consider the Citizen’s Assembly recommendations setting this entire process back even further. This would in turn cause great political damage to Government who will be seen has trying to avoid the issue again.

What has been decided thus far?

Thus far the committee has held one vote of what will no doubt be a series as it goes to recommend to the Dáil how it is to proceed with a Referendum and legislation regarding the 8th Amendment. This vote which was instigated by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Fein said that the committee would not recommend retaining Article 40.3.3 (the 8th Amendment) in full. This represents only the first step in the assessment of the Citizen’s Assembly, but even so this vote was opposed by 3 of the committee members, Senator Mullens, Mattie McGrath TD and Peter Fitzpatrick a Fine Gael TD.

Towards the end of November, the committee aims to conduct a set of votes with a view to establishing whether or not they will recommend to fully repeal the 8th and what form of legislation should replace the 2013 Act that current governs Ireland’s abortion regime. Then the committee’s recommendations will be considered by the Dáil and from there we will have a referendum sometime next year.

Concerns about the Referendum.

There are significant concerns about both the wording and the time of the upcoming Referendum. If the referendum does not outright repeal the 8th amendment but instead amends it, it is possible that pro-choice groups will reject it. If the vote is held at a time that doesn’t suit students who will have to travel home, then the pro-choice lobby will reject it.

This represents a significant difficulty for the Dáil to overcome in considering how this all needs to be addressed.

Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor