A young, secular population helped pass same-sex marriage in Ireland last year and wants abortion restrictions overturned — but the fight is proving bitterly divisive
Ninety-nine Irish citizens from across the country travelled to the center of Dublin on a recent Saturday to begin an unusual exercise in democracy. Known as the Citizens’ Assembly, the randomly selected group has been tasked with discussing and making recommendations on one of the country’s most contentious and politically and socially divisive issues — its restrictive abortion laws.
Sitting in rows amid gold columns in the royal blue grandeur of the hall where Ireland’s presidents are inaugurated, they were thanked by Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Enda Kenny for their “civic generosity and courage” for taking part in the forum that will consider a matter “deeply complex, hugely challenging and profoundly ethical.”
Over the next year, the group made up of people of different ages and backgrounds, brought together with the aim of broadly representing the Irish electorate, will discuss a number of topics including the issue of Ireland’s aging population, fixed-term parliaments and climate change. But it is the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution, which effectively criminalizes abortion, that will be the first order of business — deciding whether or not the country should vote on scrapping it completely.
Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The eighth amendment gives equal right to life to the unborn, and terminating a pregnancy is only allowed in extremely rare circumstances where the mother’s life is in danger. “Ireland is peculiar if not unique in having an expressed provision in its constitution to make abortion illegal except in circumstances it can be medically established the life of the mother is at risk,” says Noel Whelan, a political analyst. It was added to the constitution in the early 1980s, with a large majority voting in favor of it in a national referendum.