A mature debate for a mature society
The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution has sat for three months to give careful consideration to a Citizens' Assembly report and recommendations on a contentious amendment which recognises the equal right to life of a mother and unborn child. The Oireachtas committee invited contributions from an array of opinions, such as medical and legal experts, on what is undoubtedly one of most intractable issues faced by this or any other society. There are few people necessarily comfortable with the concept of terminating a pregnancy, but the reality is that around 5,000 Irish women have terminations every year, around 3,500 in the UK and the rest in Ireland through the use of abortive tablets. As the committee was told, and as most people know, under the current system in this country abortion services are actually available - they just happen to be in another jurisdiction. For some, that reality is the lesser of two evils, for others it is a glaring hypocrisy.
Now the committee, under the chairmanship of Senator Catherine Noone, has voted to recommend repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. In what is regarded to be its most far-reaching decision, the committee also voted in favour of legalising terminations of pregnancy up to 12 weeks with no restrictions. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said a referendum on the issue could be held in May next year once the Oireachtas as a whole has considered the committee's recommendations. Like Justice Mary Laffoy and the members of the Citizens' Assembly before them, the Oireachtas committee is to be commended for the dedication it has shown on this most difficult issue. While Senator Noone has been criticised by some members, in the round she has been praised for her chairmanship of the committee, whose members represent wider society in all of its varied strands. Indeed, the general public which has, after all, elected the Oireachtas committee members to Dail Eireann would find it instructive to listen to, or read, the contributions to the committee.
The issue now returns to the Oireachtas, which will in turn debate the recommendations of the committee. It is to be hoped that, in that debate, TDs and senators, whatever their position, will set a proper tone, respectful to all sides and cognisant of the wider medical, legal and indeed ethical and moral issues which were illuminated at the Citizens' Assembly and Oireachtas committee. A new generation of citizens in Ireland, rightly, are to be allowed a say on the abortion question almost 35 years after the people last had their say. It is to be hoped, and expected, that their nationally elected representatives will have a mature debate to reflect the matured society which elected them.