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Abortion debate held in Irish Citizens’ Assembly

13 January 2017


Forum: the Chair of the Citizens Assembly, Justice Mary Laffoy, closes the weekend gathering on Sunday

Forum: the Chair of the Citizens Assembly, Justice Mary Laffoy, closes the weekend gathering on Sunday

TWO leading UK philosophers have clashed on the moral issues surrounding abortion at a weekend meeting of the Irish-government inspired Citizens’ Assembly.

It has been convened to provide recommendations on whether Ireland should relax its stringent prohibitions on abortion.

One of the 99-member assembly raised the issue of the “colossal” number of abortions carried out in the UK every year, and asked: if the number had now increased, did this indicate a decline in the morals of society?

Dr Helen Watt, senior research fellow at the Roman Catholic Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford, said that the situation now pertaining in the UK reflected “what happened when abortion can take over in a way that was not intended when the law was passed”.

Countering her position, Professor Bobbie Farsides, who is Professor of Clinical and Biomedical Ethics at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said that the best answer was to trust women. Dr Watt responded that “Trust parents” would not be an acceptable answer if the question were a decision on female circumcision.

Professor Farsides said that prochoice advocates wished to have a wider debate, encouraging young people to have greater access to contraception, but “given the numbers involved, it is not necessarily correctable by a bit more counselling and a bit more support.”

The assembly, presided over a senior judge, Ms Justice Laffoy, is charged with advising the government on whether to repeal or amend the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits abortion in the case of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality, and affirms equal dignity and safeguards to the life of the mother and to the unborn foetus.

The wording of the amendment has been attributed to the deaths of at least two pregnant women in Ireland in recent years — because, medical sources say, of the confusion concerning what is permissible under law, and the fear of prosecution if the necessary action to save the mother resulted in the death of the unborn child.

Senior judges have repeatedly called on successive governments to legislate to clarify the matter, but this has not been done. After the latest meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly, which closed on Sunday evening, the general view emerging was one that favoured change to allow for broader abortion rights. The final recommendations are due to be announced within six months.

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