It's going to take more than jumpers to repeal the eighth amendment

As the Citizens' Assembly gets underway, is Ireland really ready to make a decision?

Today, 99 members of the general public will arrive at Dublin Castle to begin the process of discussing Ireland’s abortion legislation under the chairmanship of a Supreme Court Judge.

The Citizens’ Assembly is tasked with providing the government with an informed recommendation on whether or not the eighth amendment should remain the same, be removed or reformed.

The eighth amendment came into effect in 1983 and it equates the right to life of the unborn with the mother's right to life. It is regarded as archaic by some and absolutely necessary by others.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s undeniable that Ireland exercises some of the tightest restrictions in Europe when it comes to the availability of abortion. According to the IFPA, over 160,000 Irish women have travelled abroad to avail of abortion services since the 1980s.

The recommendation from the Citizens’ Assembly won’t change the laws on abortion in Ireland but it will more than likely serve as a precursor to a referendum. By involving the public at this stage of the decision making process, the government is clearly trying to avoid further confrontation than it has already dealt with on this highly sensitive topic.

The best example of how this process has worked in the past is the Constitutional Convention in 2013, which ultimately led to the referendum on same sex marriage last year.

The people chosen to partake in the Citizens’ Assembly are ‘broadly representative’ of the Irish electorate - something the vociferous campaigns on both sides have failed to do in a lot of ways.

As a young woman in her mid-twenties in Ireland, I represent a generation that has already welcomed so much change in our society - both good and bad. I also represent a generation that has more knowledge and power at the tips of our fingers than ever before.

This is why when I think about the campaigns on both sides of the abortion debate, I am decidedly disappointed.

There is something so wrong about having to highlight the importance of equality and women's rights in this day and age, but it only takes a second to look at what's happening on the other side of the pond with the possibility of a Trump presidency to realise that women need to stand up for their rights in the right way right now.

Is that what we are doing in Ireland? Kind of.

Campaigning for people to have control over the choices they make about their own lives and bodies is absolutely right. But I’m not interested in words on jumpers, politicians or social media.

I - like most people I have spoken to - am really only interested in the voices of the women who have made the journey or chosen not to. The women who have purchased the pills, flown to England or chosen to have their babies, these are the voices and words that mean the most.

It is an insult to my intelligence to assume that I need to be fed a one word slogan, branded in black and white and only told one-sided stories to secure my vote in advance.

I fear that if we were to have a referendum tomorrow, a lot of people would be too confused to have confidence in their vote to legalise abortion in Ireland.

What's the solution to this? Not more jumpers, that's for sure.

Just last night, Minister of State John Halligan said on The Late Late Show that he is pro-choice but "not too sure" about abortion on-demand. There is far too much confusion around that debate and what a solution may even look like. 

This is where a strong campaign should take off its jumpers and give the people what they really want - clarity and a solid alternative option.

Does repealing the eighth amendment make abortion legal in Ireland? I have put this question to countless friends and people I have encountered recently. Too many people said they either weren't sure or yes. Only a handful were confident in their answer that no, it doesn't.

A vote on the eighth amendment isn't as simple as a yes or no to same-sex marriage (no disrespect to how incredible that campaign was). It is viewed by a lot of people as a question of life or death and the generational divide on the topic is much lower than in the case of gay marriage.

When the Taoiseach addresses the members of the Citizens’ Assembly today ahead of their first meeting, it will be considered a monumental moment by many. The group will then go to a private session to gain further understanding of their roles and to discuss the rules and procedures around their upcoming programme. The question of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion won’t be examined until next month.

That being said, there is no going back now - we have set the wheels in motion and can only hope they are on the right track, whatever that may be.