Who would not be in favour of a citizens’ assembly to make recommendations concerning the 8th Amendment? People discussing all the intricacies of the 8th Amendment, in workshop style, chaired by the cooperative Justice Laffoy and the whole thing’s streamed and available on You Tube – how democratic is that?
Certainly, the 99 citizens particularly deserve our support for having given up their time to put their heads down to read the lengthy submissions from doctors, lawyers and academics in the area of bioethics. The problem is that the set-up of the Citizens’ Assembly channels people’s opinions down particular pathways. It frames the information presented to them in certain ways which will shape their recommendations.
Experts are running the show. A judge, senior counsel, Doctors, pro-choice and anti- choice consultants, legal experts, academics are the people selected to give presentations. And some of the papers are very specialised and technical. One from Dr Adrienne Foran, Consultant Neonatologist at the Rotunda and Temple St Hospital had to append a glossary of eighteen medical terms to her piece and tables listing the various forms of congenital abnormalities experienced in those hospitals. While some expert medical knowledge may have some role to play in the debate, should it be a main player? Moreover, how much is the choice to have an abortion influenced by these questions?
At this session of the 7-8 January there were not no presenters from the general population. There was no woman who has had an abortion, no woman worker, no parent, no teenager, no menopausal woman, no asylum seeker, no unemployed person. Expert presenters simply pushed out views which arose from the social experience of ordinary people.
The framework for the discussion at the Citizens’ Assembly is entirely a constitutional one. You may say, well, that isn’t surprising given that it is about an amendment of the constitution. But constitutional framework here means the understanding that laws are made and changed, as ‘empowered, restrained and granted’ by the Constitution, as the legal expert from Trinity, Dr David Kenny explained, as if the Constitution floated above society and was divorced from history and social context.
As it happens, of course, the Irish Constitution, like any other, arose from a particular set of political pressures which amongst others allowed the teaching of one religion to predominate. Thus it stipulates ‘a mother’s duties are in the home’ and that a foetus is ‘unborn child’.
Dr Kenny’s paper, from this strict constitutional standpoint, makes no mention of how society can alter laws through pressure from public opinion or mobilisation. The assumption is that the only power in society resides in the legal and parliamentary channels and presupposes that the law is the definitive model for people’s behaviour. This narrow view of the law is all the more ironic as applied to the abortion issue as 3,451 Irish women
– and many more including those who take the illegal abortion pill – flout the law by going somewhere else to get an abortion.
Even the concept of citizen masks social differences. The format of the ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ actually favours those with higher education, professionals or those used to public discourse. From the live streamings of the Citizens’ Assembly, it is noticeable few of the contributions and questions were made by working class people and that women spokespeople were in the minority.
In the Assembly, ethical and moral issues are given priority over people’s lived experience. The issues of the 8th Amendment are assumed to be of a general nature, involving abstract principles and dilemmas rather than those arising from specific situations confronting women with an unwanted pregnancy.
Finally, the Citizens’ Assembly is a sham substitute for real, popular democracy. It has been set up to deflect the people’s revolt against an archaic Catholic law into safer channels. Its objective is to block the simple repeal of the 8th Amendment and to advocate, either in the constitution or in law, a very restrictive access to abortion,
But the whole issue that the CA is discussing is neither an issue for experts, nor a moral one, nor even a medical one in the way presented. It is a political issue about the right for women to decide themselves about whether they continue with a pregnancy or not. The official job of the Citizens Assembly, as far as the government is concerned, is to not address this issue. This is why we should not be taken in by it. The only way in which the social and political issue of abortion can be addressed is to put the repeal of 8th Amendment to the people and allow them to decide whether they want abortion decriminalised.
Karl Marx, writing about the emerging constitutions in Europe after the revolutions of 1848-49, called constitutionalism “the democratic swindle.” The ‘swindle’ consisted of dressing up democratic forms in such ways as to keep the expression of popular opinion within its own channels and interests. The elaborate constitutional set up was worth-while for the ruling orders, to gain as Marx put it, “a safety-valve for the effervescing passions of the country”.
The rigmarole of Citizens’ Assembly is aiming to do no less.