Despite advice from both the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee to proceed with a straight Yes/No referendum on Eighth Amendment Repeal, the Virtual Coalition Irish government of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the so-called Independent Alliance continues to drag its feet on setting a date.
I am sharing time with Deputy Bríd Smith. I welcome the people who are in the Gallery for the debate but there are hundreds of people outside, members of the Strike 4 Repeal movement, in freezing cold temperatures, listening to the debate. Young people in this country are watching this issue like no other political issue and it will be the biggest political and social issue in 2018 and for many years to come. The people outside are waiting to hear the response of the Dáil to the all-party committee report and the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, and an action plan from Government outlining what will happen and when it will be implemented.
The nub of the issue is that people want a simple repeal referendum by late May because that is the optimal time for the maximum participation of young people. Lest anybody be under any illusion, young people are the people most affected by this decision. This Dáil is not made up of young people but of a very unrepresentative sample of society in many ways. They want a referendum that will lead to change and real abortion legislation.
At the very minimum, that legislation must provide for unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks. If anybody thinks that repeal can be avoided or that we can put it off until the autumn or until next year, if that was even contemplated, there would be a revolt among young people. If anyone thinks we can have a repeal referendum with very little change following it, that would also lead to a huge reaction. The tide cannot be held back on this issue any longer.
I have spoken on the issue of abortion a lot. I am tired of listening to myself, never mind what other people are tired of listening to. This is for a reason. It is because the idea of bodily autonomy is an absolute for young people. Abortion rights are what people want – not on this or that ground, not a “deserving” abortion. The concept of abortion rights is what most young people and a growing section of the population now believe in. Political parties cannot just hide behind repeal and think they can sail through the referendum without saying what will follow it. They cannot try to pretend they stand for things that they may not stand for. They can cut that out as well because—–
Deputy Simon Harris: We are not doing that.
Deputy Helen McEntee: We are not doing that.
Deputy Ruth Coppinger: I am talking to the whole Dáil. In effect, this will be a referendum on abortion rights. In a sense, that is only natural. I do not think that this Dáil has the guts or the composition to bring in abortion legislation without a massive public endorsement and a push to do so. The concept of 12 weeks will be key in the referendum.
Solidarity-PBP is obviously pro-choice. It was the only fully pro-choice formation in the Dáil up until recent times. Hopefully, that will change. We have played a lead role in arguing this case and in the active movement for repeal. Solidarity-PBP recognises that these are historic recommendations. It is only four short years since the very same parties, arguing for change, voted in a 14-year jail sentence for women. That is a fact. What has brought this change about? We have heard many on the committee and others saying they were on a journey. The phrase has become very well worn and they have decontextualised it from the actual reality. People may have been on a journey but they were pushed to go on it, in many cases kicking and screaming. Change has been forced from outside. The evidence that was heard at the committee was very important. I played a role in arguing and advancing some of that evidence, very importantly in the case of the abortion pills, which are a crucial factor in the decision that has been reached and which have been cited by many people. The civil disobedience that was undertaken with regard to the abortion pills was also hugely important. The use of the abortion pill tripled in about three years, since particular actions were taken by organisations like ROSA and others. We need to be honest about where the change has come from.
We also need to be honest that this Dáil set up the Citizens’ Assembly in an outsourcing fashion and assumed it would come back with a much more minimal recommendation. There is always a danger when we entrust ordinary people with important decisions. They might actually listen, engage and fact-check the evidence they hear. They might come up with essentially compassionate and pro-choice recommendations. The recommendation of 12 weeks on request came from the Citizens’ Assembly. I also want to put on record that socioeconomic reasons up to 22 weeks unfortunately was not agreed by a majority of parties and groups but it was advanced by a strong minority. It was a bit of a cop-out, to be honest. Many women will not be able to fall in to a 12-week timeframe for many reasons and usually they will be the most vulnerable, the poorest and the youngest. All we are doing is continuing travel outside the State.
The other question I want to address is disability and severe abnormality. It is quite clear that people who are anti-abortion are going to use very emotive arguments about disability, Down’s Syndrome, etc. We have heard them already throughout this campaign. It is the case that the committee did not take a majority position of support in respect of severe abnormality. I take no moral lectures from anybody about a woman who would make a decision on those grounds. It is not a cake-walk bringing up a child with a severe disability. I refer particularly to parties and individuals who have done nothing to make their lives better and who have voted for cuts in disability services, etc.
The response of a huge number of Deputies has so far been to run for cover. A huge number have still not declared where they stand on this. If examining one’s conscience was an Olympic sport, numbers of Irish Deputies would be winning gold medals. There was a great play made around the time of the marriage equality referendum that everyone held hands in the Dáil and walked out and won the referendum. That was not the case and it will not be the case here because parties will not be united. There is not a party whip. The winning of the referendum will be down to huge numbers of active people, young people, women and communities.
For politicians who are feeling troubled, it is very simple. The two questions they need to ask and answer are these: first, whether they support abortion being legal or illegal, because it will continue regardless and, second, whether they actually support forcing people to remain pregnant who do not want to be pregnant. That is the logic of supporting a ban on abortion. People say there are extreme views on both sides. I do not think I have an extreme view. My view is that the person involved ultimately should make the decision. I think that is a humane view.
We need to give huge credit to the active campaigns like those from the people who are outside the House this evening. The protests have mushroomed in the last years, with the repeal jumpers being worn, people taking part in repeal protests and the strike for repeal. Women have themselves defied the unjust ban by ordering abortion pills online and we have seen events like the abortion pill train, bus, etc. that I mentioned. The recommendations of the committee arise from those social movements that have taken place on the ground.
Many people have invoked 1983 and 1984, the year that followed the eighth amendment, the crass hypocrisy around Ann Lovett, the Kerry babies, etc. There is now a growing movement for gender equality. We have seen it with Trump and with the #metoo movement. The movement taking place outside on repeal is the exact same. It is a movement for bodily autonomy and for abortion rights. The time is up now for politicians to be hiding on this issue. There is no hiding place left. Young people will not accept any further procrastination or restrictions.
I ask the Minister to state the date of the referendum. It has not been set. That is a key demand and question in the minds of people outside. The information we got from the Tánaiste earlier that the Government is not going to move a repeal Bill until early March is leaving it extremely tight. We need at least six weeks plus 30 days’ grace before the referendum can be called. Maybe the Minister would clarify that. To be clear, it has to be repeal simpliciter. This was debated by the committee. I do not have time to go into it. We will then need a complete scrapping of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.