A public forum set up to advise the Irish government on constitutional issues voted Saturday to recommend unrestricted access to abortion. The Citizens’ Assembly was organized by the Irish government to debate a number of ethical and political dilemmas facing the Irish people – of which abortion rights is a pressing one. The 99 members of the group voted 64 percent to 36 percent in favor of a change to the law.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland, and a referendum in 1983 ruled that the right of the unborn has equal weight to that of the life of the mother. Since then, Ireland’s pro-choice and pro-life campaigners have been arguing over what’s known as the 8th Amendment.
Terminations in Ireland are banned except where the mother’s life is at risk, including from risk of suicide. But in these cases, the woman must prove she is suicidal before a three-person panel of doctors.
That’s not to say Irish women aren’t having abortions. More than nine Irish women travel abroad for a termination every day, the majority going to the U.K. The cost can be as high as $1,600 – for flights, hotel accommodation, taxis, and the procedure itself – though many clinics in the U.K. offer discounts for women traveling from the Republic of Ireland.
“It’s that big taboo – that you’re this dirty woman being shipped off like trash, like you don’t deserve to be looked after in your own country. We’re just going to ship you across the Irish Sea and let somebody else deal with your mistake.”
VICE News visited the Citizens’ Assembly in March to witness the abortion debate taking place, one which has raged in Ireland for many years. The 99 Irish citizens – women and men of different ages and from different parts of the country – spent a Saturday afternoon listening to women speak about their experiences dealing with Ireland’s long and complex relationship with abortion.
Some people have their heads buried in their hands, some are fighting back tears. A few are taking notes while others stare blankly ahead. The group is hearing six anonymous audio testimonies from a range of women. Some had traveled abroad for terminations. Others had contemplated it but then went ahead with their pregnancy.
A recording is played out over the sound system. This woman had considered suicide rather than tell her family she’d gotten pregnant when she wasn’t married – something that she and her boyfriend were eventually pushed into. She has regrets about the marriage, but when it comes to their child, she speaks passionately: “It’s hard but it’s doable. And you recover. I mean, it hasn’t been easy, but I would hate to think where my life would’ve gone if I had an abortion. If you give life a chance, it brings amazing joy and if people go and have abortions, you don’t know what regrets they might have later on and what damage that might do to them.”
There is rapturous applause at the end of the session – a tacit acknowledgement by everyone in the room that these were difficult stories to tell, no matter which viewpoint they represented.
Tara is one of thousands of women who have had to travel abroad for an abortion. She flew to the Netherlands for termination 11 years ago, and it’s a story she’s only shared publicly in the past two years. Like many, she had hoped the prime minister would call a referendum on the matter (in Ireland, a change in the constitution requires such a poll), but she says the Citizens’ Assembly is better than years of inaction under previous administrations.
Tara has been keeping a close eye on proceedings at the assembly, especially this weekend: “I believe that a contributor finally brought the M word out – the murderer word — today and my response on Twitter was FUCK OFF. Fuck off! Stop talking about us like that.” She has little time for the pro-life lobby: “They’ll have these soft voices and wear pearls, but they will be saying absolutely abhorrent things, and I say, no, you’re not speaking in an acceptable way. I’ve already told you that if I hadn’t had access to an abortion, I might not be here …I might have killed myself. And they don’t care.”
On the weekend that VICE News visited, the citizens were gearing up Sunday for the most combative of sessions: pro-life and pro-choice groups were invited to speak before them, before taking part in a Q&A.
Rebecca Kiessling has flown in from the U.S. to speak on behalf of Youth Defense, an Irish pro-life group. She’s had just two hours sleep but she tells VICE News she’s ready. Her opening gambit to the room sets out her stall clearly, “I’m glad to be alive. I’m glad that I was protected and that I have a life to live to even to be able to travel here to speak to you.” Her approach is more blunt than some of the other pro-life speakers, but she hopes her words will resonate. “Sex traffickers, child rapists LOVE abortions,’ she tells the room. ‘It destroys the evidence. It protects them and allows them to continue.”
“I love Ireland, I love the fact that Irish people have protected life – (they’re) my heroes,’” she tells VICE News after she speaks. Asked whether she and the rest of the pro-life lobby were imposing their moral absolutism, Rebecca is quite clear: “Every law is based on morality. Every single law. You know to suggest that it’s something unusual to force your morality is ridiculous. Every single law is like that. “Choice” is the right to choose to kill.”
Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion has been called inhumane by the U.N., but governments here have successfully kicked the issue into the long grass for years.
But now, after five months of deliberations, this past weekend saw the Citizens Assembly vote on a series of recommendations. Supreme Court Justice Mary Laffoy will now prepare a report on their decisions and submit it to the Irish Parliament for debate by elected officials. If the abortion issue does eventually go to a referendum, latest opinion polls show that 76 percent of the population are in favour of liberalizing the law in some way.
For Tara, she says it’s time to change the law and treat women in Ireland fairly. ‘We’re at every bus stop, we’re in every school room. We’re in every hospital, at the supermarket today. People they know and love have had abortions and they’re stigmatizing them too.’