Citizens' Assembly told of 26 abortions in Ireland
Diaspora encouraged to participate in opening up discussion on abortion
Irish people living abroad have been asked to "make their voices heard" in the contentious debate over abortion laws in Ireland. And those aged under 18 have also been asked to contribute their thoughts to the discussion.
The Citizens' Assembly's 99 members, drafted from the general public, convened in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, for its first full-day meeting yesterday.
Among the speakers were Professor John Higgins, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from UCC, who told the Assembly that there were 26 pregnancies terminated in Ireland between 2014 and 2015.
The terminations were facilitated under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.
He said many of these arose from mothers lives coming under threat from a physical illness. Three pregnancies were terminated because they involved the threat of suicide.
Speaking on the first day of deliberations regarding the highly controversial abortion issue, chairperson Ms Justice Mary Laffoy stressed the importance of "deliberative democracy" in the process.
"We are actively seeking submissions from representative groups, citizens' organisations, other interest bodies, and members of the public on the topic of the Eighth Amendment," she said.
To date, the assembly has received almost 600 public submissions, including one from the standing committee of the Church of Ireland.
These have not yet been published online although this will be done in due course.
Some representations contained personal testimony from women regarding their experiences.
"The submissions are integral to the work of the assembly and I would encourage people to have their voices heard, in particular the diaspora and young people under 18 years of age, who are not directly represented in the assembly membership.
"The submissions will form the basis of the selection of advocacy and other organisations which will make presentations in future weekend sessions."
Four weekends of deliberations and presentations between now and March will be dedicated solely on the topic of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. The provision recognises "the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal life of the mother."
A recommendation will then be made to the Oireachtas for consideration following a vote or a series of votes by members. If a change is recommended, the Government must decide if a referendum is required.
Meanwhile, 11 of the 99 ordinary members of the assembly have stepped down from the body over the past month.
In the majority of cases the decision was made for personal reasons. The body's secretariat says they have been replaced by substitutes - drawn from a panel which was chosen along with the full members - in the lead-up to the assembly's first meeting last month.
Ranging in age from 20 to 70, members were randomly selected by a polling company to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate.
There will be a further half-day session today which will see Professor Mark Sheehan of Oxford University provide the members with a variety of options to approach ethical issues. The objective of this weekend's forum is to inform members of the legislation regarding abortion and how it operates in practice.
However, he will not specifically deal with the ethical matters surrounding the issue.
Other topics the assembly will cover over the year include an ageing population, fixed-term parliaments, referendums and climate change.