Give Ordinary People a Say On Abortion (and Other Contentious Issues)
What I learned as a member of the Irish citizens' assembly.
When I learned that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, I felt an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Living across the Atlantic in Ireland, it has been painful to watch an increasing number of states pass and enforce legislation outlawing abortion—some so draconian that there are no exceptions, even when the mother’s life is in danger.
Until recently, abortions were illegal in Ireland as well. In 1983, Irish voters had passed a national referendum amending the constitution to ban abortion in nearly all circumstances. Over the years, polls showed growing shifts in public opinion against the ban, but since there was no political appetite to make any changes, abortion remained illegal. That is, until 2016, when mounting public pressure drove the Irish government to establish a “Citizens’ Assembly” made up of a random selection of 99 citizens eligible to vote. The assembly was tasked with deliberating and making recommendations to the parliament on a number of contentious issues—including abortion.
The direct involvement of citizens in the policy-making process, known as “participatory democracy,” was not wholly unprecedented in Ireland. In 2011, an independent non-governmental initiative, We the Citizens, conducted a project to demonstrate the beneficial effects of citizens engaging in public decision-making. Just a year later, the government established the Convention on the Constitution, a group of 100 people—composed mostly of citizens chosen at random to represent Irish society and nominees of political parties—empowered with the responsibility to consider various changes to the constitution. The impact of the Convention was monumental. In fact, one of their recommendations eventually resulted in the 2015 referendum, which made Ireland the first country to legalize same-sex marriages through popular vote.
In August of 2016, I answered a knock on the door at my home about 50 kilometers northwest of Dublin. A man with a clipboard explained the purpose of the Citizens’ Assembly and asked if I wanted to participate. I accepted. The Assembly’s first meeting was held two months later in October, and we convened every month through the next April. At these meetings, we heard testimony from a range of experts with opposing perspectives on the legal, medical, ethical, and personal aspects of abortion. These presentations were given without the stridency that often accompanies the issue of abortion—so much so that at times it was difficult to immediately tell if the speakers were pro-choice or pro-life.
The members of the Citizens’ Assembly were quite divided on the issue of abortion. Although I am pro-choice, Ireland is predominantly Catholic, and many others had strong religious or ethical reservations. For many of us, it was the first time we really listened to all sides of the debate. Once a month for the next five months, we listened, discussed, asked questions, and voted—everyone was encouraged to speak up as we progressed. At times the information we were given was emotionally distressing and overwhelming, but I observed the members exhibit a quiet, collective determination to deepen their understanding. Although I witnessed changes in the beliefs of some members—either changing their minds completely or holding on to their convictions while acknowledging the legitimacy of the opposing point of view—we weren’t aiming for consensus. We were tasked with understanding the complexities of abortion in Ireland, and we wanted to ensure that our recommendations were sensible, practical, and compassionate.
In our final meeting, we voted on the recommendations that would be sent to the Irish parliament. First, 87% of the assembly voted to recommend repealing, at least in part, the 8th Amendment’s ban on abortion. Later, 57% recommended replacing the 8th Amendment with a constitutional provision allowing parliament to legislate on the issue. Finally, the assembly voted on what that legislation should look like, with 64% recommending that there should be abortion access for women without any reason required. Of that 64%, almost half recommended limiting that access to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, 44% recommended limiting it to the first 22 weeks, and 8% wanted no restriction at all. In addition, the vast majority of the assembly voted to recommend exceptions to these time limits in certain circumstances, including in the case of rape, if the health of the mother is in danger, and if there are significant fetal abnormalities.
The final recommendations reflected the deeper understanding the members had come to after hours of expert testimony and deliberation. And while the opinions of individual members of the assembly remained diverse, the ultimate recommendations of the group as a whole reflected a sensible middle ground.
The report of the Citizens’ Assembly was presented to the Dáil (the lower house of Irish parliament) in June of 2017. Three months later, a joint committee was established within the parliament to consider the recommendations—expert testimony was presented to the members of this committee as well. The following year, after being passed by both houses of parliament, the country held a public referendum asking voters if the country should repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow provision by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy. In that referendum, held in May of 2018, 66% of the citizens of Ireland voted in favor of repealing the 8th amendment. This paved the way for the 2018 Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act, which broadly reflects the recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly that abortion should be universally permitted up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and in certain circumstances thereafter, such as when the mother’s health is at risk.
Globally speaking, the success of the Citizens’ Assembly is not an isolated event—a recent OECD report on innovative citizen participation and democratic tools provides evidence that deliberative decision-making processes have been successful in many countries and communities across the world. If done right, participatory democracy has the potential to ensure that public policy reflects the opinions of ordinary citizens. This is especially important on issues that directly affect people's daily lives.
Though it’s not a panacea, incorporating direct citizen participation in the American legislative process may soothe the polarizing fault lines that plague the country’s politics. Abortion is a case in point: polls have demonstrated that public opinion on abortion is far more moderate than the political dialogue may suggest, with most Americans supporting abortion in several, but not all, circumstances. If ordinary Americans were given more of a say on contentious issues, including the question of abortion, perhaps the country could pass popular middle-ground legislation. That is what happened in Ireland, and there’s no reason that it can’t happen in the United States as well.
Louise Caldwell was a volunteer member of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly from 2016-2018. She works in Trinity College Dublin and is a board member of People Powered: Global Hub for Participatory Democracy.