"It is a complex, contentious issue": Citizens' Assembly meets to discuss the 8th Amendment

The 99 citizens involved in the process will recommend to the Oireachtas how the State should deal with the amendment

"It is a complex, contentious issue": Citizens' Assembly meets to discuss the 8th Amendment

Justice Mary Laffoy. Image: RollingNews.ie

The chairperson of the Citizens' Assembly said there is much to do, and much to learn ahead of their first meeting today.

Justice Mary Laffoy thanked those participating in the assembly in her opening address in Malahide this morning, as they to set to discuss the first topic on the table for the assembly - the Eight Amendment.

It was the first of four weekend sessions to discuss the amendment and abortion laws in Ireland.

The assembly heard presentations from Dr Eoin Carolan of UCD, Professor John Higgins of Cork University Maternity Hospital and Prof Anthony McCarthy (National Maternity Hospital).

Janice Donlon from the HSE Sexual Health & Crisis Pregnancy Programme and Dr Brendan O’Shea from the Irish College of General Practitioners also spoke.

During initial round-table discussions, questions were put forward about contraception, fatal foetal abnormalities and specific cases including that of the late Savita Halappanavar.

Medical experts addressed the assembly following this, with Professor John Higgins presenting case studies on suicide among pregnant women and pre-eclampsia.

Spokesperson for the HSE Janice Donlon told the Assembly that the Abortion Act 1995 does not reflect the advancements in technology, saying that a lot of couples are now by-passing abortion counselling services.

Dr Brendan O’Shea of the Irish College of General Practitioners said poor women are more likely to accept pregnancy as they cannot afford to travel for a termination.

Dr O'Shea said: "From a purely 'whole of society' perspective, building on good work already done by many agencies [...] in removing all the remaining obstacles and barriers to contraception for all women almost certainly holds greater potential in terms of reducing number of crisis pregnancies, and ultimately meaningfully reducing number of terminations."

Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, which came in to effect at the start of 2014, saw 26 terminations in the two years of recorded data in 2014 and 2015.

14 terminations arose from a risk of physical illness, while three were carried out due to a risk of suicide.

Under the law, women who are at risk of committing suicide, due to an unwanted pregnancy, are required to be examined by two consultant psychiatrists and a consultant obstetrician.

Prof Anthony McCarthy says this process would be very difficult for a suicidal person to go through.

"To begin to tell that story to one psychiatrist... to try and tell it to a second psychiatrist - another stranger - and have to wait, and then know she might be turned down," he told the assembly.

Over 600 submissions were made to the assembly on the issue of the Eighth - including one from the standing committee of the Church of Ireland.

Eleven of the 99 ordinary members of the Citizens' Assembly have stepped down from the body over the past month, mostly for personal reasons.

The body's secretariat says they have been replaced by substitutes drawn from a panel of 99 which was chosen along with the full members in the lead-up to the assembly's first meeting last month.

Other topics the assembly will cover over the year include the ageing population, fixed term parliaments, referendums and climate change.

The assembly will meet again tomorrow when the programme of work will be decided for the remaining three weekend sessions on the Eighth Amendment, which are scheduled to take place in early 2017.