An onlooker’s view of the Citizens’ Assembly and the abortion debate
By Laura Lynott
Since November I sacrificed five full weekends to witness the Citizens’ Assembly to see representatives of the Irish public debate one of the most contentious issues in this country – abortion.
I have to admit, at times it was very difficult for me to sit through some of the Assembly, held at a hotel in Malahide, north Dublin.
I’m English. So I was born into a country where abortion is considered a human right for women in crisis pregnancies.
Growing up in England as a second-generation woman, I always knew I had the right to abortion if I ever needed it but with Irish heritage, I also knew how my mother’s country viewed this issue so differently.
But nothing prepared me to hear some of the views from U.S pro life advocates in particular, at the Assembly.
What had been mostly an even-minded debate throughout, showing both sides of the argument – had suddenly descended into debased, emotive and senseless preaching.
I listened to stories of children who were delighted to be alive after their mothers were raped, as ridiculous attempts were made to convince the room that even in cases of rape, abortion shouldn’t be a right.
I listened as the church argued for the right to life of the unborn, days after the true horror of the Tuam babies scandal was realised in the press.
And I listened, though I felt physically sick, as I repeatedly heard the term “abortion on demand” from the floor – a disgusting phrase which insinuates women demand abortions when this procedure is legal in a country.
This phrase is a falsehood and couldn’t be further from the truth. No woman could demand an abortion. All she could do is try to get through this crisis in one piece and in the case of Irish women, many of them are going it alone in a foreign country.
But during this debate, there were heartening moments when I felt very proud of my Irish heritage, the land of my mother, where I’d always been half something.
And as I now prepare to sit, listen and watch, to what I fully expect to be a cowardly public discussion led by male politicians and male pundits, I will hold on to those moments at the Assembly and hope for a future when Ireland will stand up for its daughters, sisters, mothers and friends.
I won’t forget the stories of the Irish women played out to the room. For they were the stories that made me cry. These women knew better than anyone how important a referendum on abortion is because they’ve been there and they’ve lived this.
To hear Irish women say they’d had to leave their homeland for England just to have an abortion really hit me deep inside.
Of course I knew this happened but having these women’s words played one after the other in succession, thumped at my chest and opened my heart and I was far from alone. I witnessed Assembly members weep a little. This was, without a doubt in my mind, the moment that changed everything.
So when the women told how they’d felt so alone in English abortion clinics, how they still felt alone dealing with this so-called shame thrust upon them by this Irish State, how they’d flown home still in pain, still bleeding and how they just wanted to see change – they were finally – not alone anymore. Most of the Assembly were with them in their hearts, at last.
They’d travelled, they’d struggled, had been hurt so badly and still wore the mental wounds of having to hide but in my eyes and I believe in the eyes of most in the room, they were warriors because only by living our truth can we hope to make life better for those that come after.
And overwhelmingly on Sunday afternoon the Assembly spoke when the majority – 64 per cent – stated abortions should be allowed “with no restriction as to reasons.” This was the second moment I’d feel truly proud of my Irish heritage.
48 per cent chose to allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, and 44 per cent said it should be permitted it up to 22 weeks. 8 per cent wanted no restrictions placed on gestational age.
I do feel this is a massive leap for the liberation of women in Ireland and a step we must continue to fight for though with caution I’d add that 12 weeks is a very early pregnancy and some women wouldn’t even realise they were expecting at this point.
The fact 72 per cent of the Assembly also voted for socio-economic reasons to allow a woman to gain an abortion, was also a considered and impressive step in the right direction.
The truth is, no one can understand one individual woman’s situation when she is going through a crisis pregnancy.
But no one should judge her either. It is her choice and her’s alone because this is her body, her right, her mind and for true freedom, women must own that right.
However, this debate is complex and there are extremely emotive arguments made on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides.
And it is my feeling both sides should be respectful of the other and take their places in democratic debate where sensible arguments are made without propaganda or falsehoods.
But as this debate goes on and we hopefully see more female politicians and pundits become involved, as we approach the campaign the pro-choice lobbyists are already preparing and as we hold our breaths for an abortion referendum and public vote, we must remember her – the Irish woman who is still travelling to England for a termination.
No matter how many debates are had, how many rows, online or in person between both sides – she will still travel and nothing will or can stop her because England, my country of birth, allows her the dignity and respect to choose – something her own country denies her.
She is the one most reasonable minded people must fight for now. She is our daughter, our mother, our sister and our friend and this life-changing and deeply serious decision should only ever be made by her.
Don’t keep turning your back on her Ireland. Don’t keep making her travel. Hold her hand and tell her you’re there.
Fight for change, march for her rights, stand as one and vote yes to abortion because abortion is happening in England and thousands of women are forced to travel when they should be comforted here, at home, with family and friends, at the hardest, cruelest time of their life.