On Wednesday the 17th of January, government ministers began the difficult and controversial task of debating the Eighth Amendment. The event has been described as one which will in time be seen as historic. The debate was scheduled to last two days; and during this time various ministers from both sides of government gave their opinions on the matter. The event was held in order to discuss the Report on the Joint Committee of the Eighth Amendment.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) called for the government to respect the recommendations that had been made on repealing the constitutional amendment. A Citizens Assembly began meeting in November 2016 to discuss the issue. They issued a report with recommendations, which were then presented to the Houses of Oireachtas. This report was referred to a joint committee for consideration.
Michael Kerrigan, President of USI, stated that the debate should ‘not be derailed’ and should have ‘women’s healthcare at heart’. He explained that the USI welcome the outcomes of this committee as they will show there is merit in providing facts and information to prove to the government how the 8th Amendment damages Irish people’s lives. Kerrigan emphasised that the USI welcomes discussions surrounding the legislation allowing a lawful abortion up to twelve weeks; but that the work carried out by the Citizens Assembly must be upheld. Over a year of hard work and commitment was put into making the report, and the recommendations made represented the views of the majority of members.
Opening the debate, Minister for Health Simon Harris acknowledged that he was aware of the sensitivities and complexities of the issue. He went on to recognise and pay tribute to the Committee’s work and stated that the report was to play an important role in the foundation of the debate, saying “I respect the views of those who dissent from the recommendations, but I do believe they are the basis on which we must proceed on this issue”
Many calls for reform were made during the debate, as well as numerous references to a ‘dark culture’ in Ireland. Minister Harris recalled the Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby homes and other parts of Irish history – and stated that this issue is challenging Ireland to reflect on what kind of society we want to have.
Further statements from Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on health, outlined the staggering number of women travelling abroad to receive abortions, as well as those taking abortion pills. Sinn Féin member Mary Lou McDonald spoke of the ‘abuse of women and indifference to health and bodily integrity’, which was now unacceptable in Irish life.
Those members with opposing views were also given the opportunity to express their opinions; Kerry Independent TD Michael Healy Rae stated ‘I just don’t agree with abortion. I just don’t think it’s right and nothing will ever change me from that point of view’.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has stated he is very committed to holding a referendum in May or June of this year. He is prepared to provide leadership for the referendum and believes that the current laws are ‘too restrictive’ and in need of liberalisation.
While several government members are still criticising the situation, the Cabinet has formally agreed to begin drafting a bill which would allow a referendum to take place. This is what the USI was aiming for, as it wants to ensure students are in a position to cast their votes on this topical issue. No one under the age of 53 has ever had the opportunity to cast their vote on the 8th Amendment.