Repeal or Replace?

Fiona de Londras | @fdelond

There is going to be a referendum on the 8th Amendment in 2018. That much is clear. What we don’t yet know is what proposition will be put to the people. In part, this is because the Citizens Assembly recommended that Article 40.3.3 “should be replaced with a constitutional provision that explicitly authorises the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn and any rights of the pregnant woman”. In doing this, it is very clear that the Assembly was concerned to ensure that the Oireachtas would have the power to introduce wide-ranging abortion law reform should it wish to do so; this is evident from the legislative recommendations it then went on to make. Whether the Assembly meant that the Oireachtas should be given an express power to legislate, or whether it meant that the Oireachtas should have the power to create law that would be immune from constitutional challenge is unclear: I discussed this here. What is clear, though, is that the Assembly wanted there to be no dispute about the power of the Parliament to make law for abortion. Why, then, did it recommend repeal rather than replace? Continue reading “Repeal or Replace?”

Repeal or Replace?

An Abortion Law Immune from Constitutional Review?

Fiona de Londras @fdelond

In yesterday’s hearing of the Committee on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution talk turned to the idea that a new constitutional provision might be crafted and introduced which would provide that any law on abortion would be immune from constitutional challenge. In his presentation to the Committee, David Kenny made it clear that this was what he took the Citizens’ Assembly to have meant by its recommendation. In my evidence I posited a different interpretation, namely “as a proposal designed to make explicit the power to legislate for abortion to the extent recommended in the legislative proposals made by the Assembly”. On reflection, either understanding is probably sustainable. Reading the transcripts of the Assembly again, I still consider that the concern with ensuring the Oireachtas had “exclusive” competence to make law for abortion was intended to ensure absolute clarity about the power to legislate for the issue, but it could also be interpreted as saying that in doing so the Oireachtas should be empowered to make a law that would be immune from constitutional review. If the latter interpretation were pursued, would this be desirable and what would be the implications? Continue reading “An Abortion Law Immune from Constitutional Review?”

An Abortion Law Immune from Constitutional Review?

Should the pro-choice movement support a new constitutional provision on abortion?

In the run-up to the Citizens’ Assembly deliberations on abortion, there was a lot of discussion on the possibility of a ‘compromise’ or ‘moderate’ solution. Many envisaged (and feared) that instead of recommending outright repeal of the Eighth amendment, the assembly would instead recommend inserting a replacement clause that would permit slightly less restrictive abortion laws, but still enshrine specific, limited grounds for abortion. Indeed, such a supposedly moderate position was probably contemplated by the government as something that a mythical ‘middle Ireland’ might accept. Along with many others, I was adamant that it was a terrible idea to enshrine abortion restrictions of any kind at the constitutional level. This would have the effect of copperfastening a potentially oppressive regime for another generation.

And so the early debate was dominated by the question of ‘repeal versus replace’. Ultimately many of us were surprised that the Assembly deliberations unfolded along very different lines. In the first place, the Assembly clearly rejected the idea of inserting any revised abortion restrictions within the Constitution itself, partly because the majority rejected such restrictions, bar time limits, full stop. However, it also declined to recommend straightforward deletion of the Eighth amendment, which has essentially been the demand of the prochoice movement to date. Instead, it seems to have been influenced by the view that the revised text of the Constitution, minus the ‘eighth’, could still be interpreted as including residual rights for the ‘unborn’, and that this could be used to challenge liberalizing legislation of the kind it recommended. Therefore, it recommended inserting a new constitutional clause which, in the working of the Assembly report, would clarify that it is ‘solely’ within the power of the Oireachtas to legislate on ‘any rights of the unborn’ and ‘any rights of the pregnant woman’.

Continue reading “Should the pro-choice movement support a new constitutional provision on abortion?”

Should the pro-choice movement support a new constitutional provision on abortion?

The Citizens Assembly Proposals: A Draft Bill

Lawyers for Choice has produced a draft bill that gives effect to the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations for abortion law reform. The purpose of the Bill is to codify the Assembly’s proposals, and to show how simply and easily that can be done. The provisions reflect the choices of the Assembly members’ and not those of Lawyers for Choice.

Regrettably, the Assembly’s deliberations on legislation were confined to grounds for accessing abortion only. Experience worldwide shows that, even where grounds are well-drafted, abortion can be difficult to access. The Oireachtas must pay attention to barriers to access such as obstructions outside of clinics, the circulation of misleading information on abortion, underfunding of services, and conscientious objection. Any final legislation must make provision for these matters.

In addition, we regret that the Assembly was unable to consider the decriminalisation of abortion, which is clearly required by international human rights law. Continue reading “The Citizens Assembly Proposals: A Draft Bill”

The Citizens Assembly Proposals: A Draft Bill

Why would any country put abortion in the Constitution?

by Mairead Enright. (@maireadenright)

In Ireland, the abortion debate is often conducted by reference to Britain. Conservatives associate the Abortion Act 1967 with the bogeyman of  ‘abortion on demand’. In the struggle to ‘be different from Britain’, we perhaps miss some of our commonalities with other countries which have taken a similar route to regulating abortion. Ireland is unusual in ‘writing abortion into the Constitution’, but it is not alone. It is very difficult to generalise across jurisdictions, especially because Constitutions perform different functions in different jurisdictions, and are subject to different procedures for amendment. However, a quick survey suggests that Ireland has only about 20 fellow travellers; a few in Europe (such as Hungary and the Czech Republic), more in South America, where the trend began (Chile, Honduras, Ecuador, El Salvador) and the rest in Africa (Swaziland, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe etc). I am not sure if this is an exhaustive list, and would be grateful for corrections and references. Constitutional abortion provisions take a variety of different forms. Some date to the 1980’s while others are very new.

  • The most common is a broad assertion that the right to life begins at conception or before birth: Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Hungary, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Paraguay. Madagascar has a similar ‘right to health’ provision.
  • Statements of the unborn’s right to life: Chile and statements of the unborn’s right to be treated legally as a born person: Honduras, Peru. Interestingly, like the 8th Amendment, these also date from the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.
  • Provisions which equate the right to life of the unborn with that of the mother: Only Ireland and the Philippines have done this.
  • Provisions which set out the grounds for access to abortion: Somalia, Swaziland and Kenya.
  • Provisions deferring to the legislature, stating that abortion is illegal except as provided by legislation: Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Kenya and Swaziland have a similar provision, in addition to stating current specific grounds.

What have the results been?

A constitutional abortion provision is generally a mark of restrictive abortion laws. As shorthand, if you use the Center for Reproductive Rights well-known map of abortion laws, you will find most of these countries in the ‘red’ zone with Ireland; officially prohibiting abortion or allowing only life-saving abortions. These regimes are incompatible with women’s human rights to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, health, autonomy and so on. A few of our fellow-travellers are in the ‘yellow zone’, permitting access on grounds of physical and sometimes mental health and foetal impairment. Whatever the law says on paper, practical access to abortion is often poor, even for those women entitled to it in principle.

However, not all of these countries have such restrictive abortion laws. Hungary and the Slovak and Czech Republics have more liberal abortion laws than Ireland, at least on paper. A general statement of the obligation to protect unborn life does not in itself translate into either criminalisation, or restrictive grounds for abortion. The Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic held in 2007 that a 12 week period of abortion on request was compatible with the constitutional provision on unborn life. Despite the Constitution’s foetal life provision, it was possible for the Slovak court to come to a similar position to that taken by constitutional courts elsewhere in Europe. Ireland’s Supreme Court has not be able to draw similar conclusions because the Supreme Court in X  held that the mother’s right to survival and the foetus’ right to be born are equal.

That said,  foetal life provisions are malleable, as are all constitutional rights. They operate in their particular context. Similar constitutional provisions are invoked to support regressive abortion policy in Hungary,and criminalisation of women in Ecuador. They can also ground extremely restrictive judgments by superior courts, as happened, for example, when an attempt to decriminalise abortion in the Dominican Republic was struck down, and when the Chilean constitutional tribunal blocked government efforts to distribute the morning after pill. Famously in El Salvador in 2013, the Supreme Court denied a seriously ill woman a termination even though her foetus could not survive birth.

The African provisions might catch the eye of those lobbying for ‘replacement’ rather than repeal. Some of these are indeed liberalising amendments by comparison with what preceded them. However, they are vulnerable to political intransigence. In Kenya, for example, lack of guidelines interpreting the constitutional provision has left doctors unwilling to provide legal abortion services. A case is forthcoming in the High Court. In Swaziland, although women’s groups welcomed the constitutional reform, no steps have been taken to legislate for abortion. Inconsistent interpretation of the abortion law has also been a problem in Uganda. As we know in Ireland, while abortion is in the constitution, legislators can (perhaps paradoxically) shirk their responsibility to legislate for it.

How does abortion end up in the Constitution?

It is impossible to answer that fascinating question fully for all of these very different countries, in all their complexity, in a single blog post.  In Ireland, constitutional abortion law has been a place to work through and make statements about national identity; abortion is the place where religious, post-conflict and post-colonial tensions meet. In 1983, PLAC capitalised on a period of political instability to place a near-permanent block in the way of women’s reproductive rights. It is an old adage that these tensions are worked out over women’s bodies, often with the assistance of powerful foreign lobbies.

Sometimes the identitarian nature of other countries’ law seems to appear on on the face of it. Somalia’s abortion provision, for example, explicitly references the shari’a. In other cases, we have to look to the context in which the provision was inserted into the Constitution.

Older constitutional abortion laws are associated with regimes which place a premium on national identity, whether as part of a process of self-definition after a prolonged period of violence, or as part of an ideology of ‘national security’ associated with military authoritarianism. Honduras’ provision is in a constitution passed in a period of instability after 10 years of military rule. One of the oldest constitutional abortion laws is Chile’s; passed by referendum in 1980 under Pinochet’s dictatorship. It is also interesting to note that many of the African countries mentioned, like Ireland, inherited their abortion law from the British in 1861. Abortion is tied up in postcolonialism, for them as for us.

Often the presence of an abortion provision reflects a religious backlash against what is perceived as unduly permissive abortion law. Zambia’s Constitution, for example, permits the government to legislate for abortion, and abortion is legal on narrow grounds. A new Zambian Constitution passed last year but a proposed constitutional provision – inserting a foetal right to life – has been deferred, pending the achievement of consensus. The new foetal life provision was intended to reflect the ‘Christian values’ underpinning the new Constitution. In Kenya, church leaders demanded a ‘no vote’ to the 2010 Constitution on the basis of its abortion provisions, even though they did not change the content of the pre-existing abortion law at all. Similar pressures succeeded in El Salvador, where in 1999 the Catholic church was a significant force in securing a foetal life amendment to the Constitution against feminist opposition. The involvement of the institutional Catholic church in repressing abortion reform is a theme across Latin America, where hostility to abortion has proved compatible with Leftist as well as with conservative government.

Conclusion

There is surprisingly little comparative work on constitutional abortion provisions. Ireland, however, would do well to pay attention to constitutional abortion provisions as a legal strategy; to ask what they have been used to do elsewhere; and to pass future laws which express, not a faith in Irish exceptionalism, but an awareness of the 8th Amendment’s global resonances. We tend to associate constitutional law with certainty and technicality, but a quick review of the history of constitutional abortion provisions suggests different associations; with stalled law-making, human rights abuse, and sacrifice of women’s interests in the pursuit of shared values.

Why would any country put abortion in the Constitution?

Reflections on the Citizen’s Assembly (3): The Presentation of Dr. Joan McCarthy

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Donnchadh O’Conaill, of the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki. This is the third of a series of posts Donnchadh is writing on presentations of ethicists to the Citizens Assembly; the first can be found here, and the second here

While debates over the status of the foetus are central to ethical and philosophical discussions of abortion, the freedom of women to choose to have abortions is crucial to political debates on this subject. Dr. Joan McCarthy presented a defence of this freedom, taking as her starting point “the body and the life of the woman or girl who is pregnant”, considered as a moral agent, i.e., as making ethical choices in concrete situations.[1] In assessing the choices such women face, McCarthy draws on two principles: autonomy and justice. Continue reading “Reflections on the Citizen’s Assembly (3): The Presentation of Dr. Joan McCarthy”

Reflections on the Citizen’s Assembly (3): The Presentation of Dr. Joan McCarthy

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (2): The Presentation of Bobbie Farsides

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Donnchadh O’Conaill, of the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki. This is the second of a series of posts Donnchadh is writing on presentations of ethicists to the Citizens Assembly; the first can be found here.

Debates about abortion can often be traced back to disagreements about the status of the foetus, e.g., whether it is a being with any independent moral significance. All parties to this disagreement share two assumptions: that ethical debates over abortion are primarily a matter of the moral importance of the foetus, and that the nature of the foetus is what determines its moral status. Hence many opponents of abortion will appeal to the fact that the foetus is a human being, e.g. it has a soul or has the potential to become a rational being; many proponents of liberal abortion laws will counter that the foetus, at least early in its development, lacks certain capacities which are crucial to having moral status.[1] The arguments here are often complex and involve subtle points of metaphysics which are not easy to resolve. More generally, regardless of what one thinks about these issues, it might seem that such esoteric matters are not appropriate as a basis for legislation.

In her submission to the Citizen’s Assembly, Prof. Bobbie Farsides outlines an alternative approach: a way of justifying a pro-choice regime which seeks to avoid disputes about the nature or moral status of the foetus.[2] Continue reading “Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (2): The Presentation of Bobbie Farsides”

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (2): The Presentation of Bobbie Farsides

Languishing in Direct Provision: Rights in ‘Reasonable’ and ‘Unreasonable’ Times

imagesThe length of time that asylum seekers reside within direct provision accommodation, continues to cause significant concern, as it has done so for almost seventeen years.  The practical impact of the implementation of the limited recommendations contained within the  McMahon Report still remains to be fully seen. The Minister for Justice and Equality has stated that 80% of all recommendations made by the McMahon Report are implemented or are being implemented. However, this claim has not to date been backed up with comprehensive assessment from the Department of Justice.  The commencement of the International Protection Act 2015 on 31 December 2016, will hopefully ensure that persons in the protection system receive a fair, procedurally proper and clear decisions on whether they qualify for protection in a timely manner. However, as noted by David Costello, Chief International Protection Officer at a seminar last week, there are 4,000 cases to hand in the International Protection Office (IPO) due to the commencement of the International Protection Act. [With thanks to Fiona Finn, CEO of NASC for making me aware of this]. Oldest cases will be decided first. Those already with a negative determination of refugee status by the now abolished Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner under the old law, will return to the IPO for determination of their subsidiary protection claim. If subsidiary protection is rejected by the IPO decision maker, then both refugee and subsidiary protection appeals will be considered by the International Protection Appeals Tribunal. Whether this impacts slightly or majorly on timely and fair delivery of protection decisions remains to be seen. A case decided last week may have significant impacts on the right to a timely decision on a protection claim. Continue reading “Languishing in Direct Provision: Rights in ‘Reasonable’ and ‘Unreasonable’ Times”

Languishing in Direct Provision: Rights in ‘Reasonable’ and ‘Unreasonable’ Times

A boon for parliament? An initial response to the decision in Kerins v McGuinness

We are pleased to welcome this post by Dr. Tom Hickey, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

Sometimes constitutional law has an ironic effect and one that perhaps goes against the intuitions of lawyers, and of people generally. It prevents one arm of government from doing justice in order to allow another arm of government to do its job well. In today’s High Court judgment in Kerins v McGuinness, we see something like that at play, although it is probably better to say that in this instance constitutional law prevented one institution (the courts) from considering whether to offer a remedy for alleged injustices done unto Angela Kerins in order to allow another institution (parliament) to freely carry out its functions.

Continue reading “A boon for parliament? An initial response to the decision in Kerins v McGuinness”

A boon for parliament? An initial response to the decision in Kerins v McGuinness

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (1): The presentation of Dr Helen Watt

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Donnchadh O’Conaill, of the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki. This is the first of a series of posts Donnchadh is writing on presentations of ethicists to the Citizens Assembly.

Regardless of what one thinks about the need for a Citizen’s Assembly, its deliberations have already thrown up a number of interesting approaches to thinking about ethical issues, particularly concerning abortion. What follows is a series of articles on the presentations by ethicists to the assembly, examining the arguments that they offer and their potential implications for a possible referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.

Dr. Helen Watt presented an argument against abortion which was of interest, particularly in the context of Irish debates about abortion, in not relying (at least not explicitly) on religious doctrine. Indeed, Watt’s arguments rest on certain assumptions which are difficult or impossible to reconcile with the beliefs of many religions, for instance the belief in an immortal soul. But as with more familiar religiously-motivated discussions, Watt’s argument appeals to the nature of the foetus to justify its having a certain moral status. By the ‘nature’ of the foetus I mean not just its physical or biological features but those features which might be thought to give it moral significance in and of itself, regardless of what anyone thinks about it. This kind of moral significance is what is usually meant when ethicists speak of the ‘moral status’ of the foetus. Continue reading “Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (1): The presentation of Dr Helen Watt”

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (1): The presentation of Dr Helen Watt