The Citizens’ Assembly report ignores conscientious objection

At the end of June, Ms Justice Laffoy  presented her report on the Citizens’ Assembly meetings dedicated to the discussion of the 8th amendment. In spite of calls for the provision and regulation of conscientious objection to abortion, the report has made no recommendation about it.

The Citizens’ Assembly members voted for Article 40.3.3 to “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.” If this will happen it will be also necessary to regulate the right of conscientious objectors.

As one of the purposes of the Citizens’ Assembly was to make recommendations about what should be included in a possible new legislation, one wonders why it failed to address this fundamental issue, ignoring the suggestions and requests coming from Assembly members, private citizens, advocacy groups and professional bodies.

During the first weekend of the Citizens’ Assembly, in November, members were asked to identify topics that they believed to be important. The regulation of conscientious objection was one of the key points raised. Following their request, at the February meeting prof. Gerard Bury delivered a paper on the “Regulation of the medical profession and issues arising including conscientious objection”. Other speakers have occasionally referred to the same issue.

Some submissions from private citizens, advocacy groups and professional bodies have also dealt with this topic, suggesting different solutions to the regulation of conscientious objection. These submissions came both from the pro-life and the pro-choice sides. (See, for instance, the contributions of the Green Party, Amnesty International Ireland or the Irish Council for Civil Liberty.) Unfortunately, we know that the large majority of those submissions have been ignored by the Assembly and only a random selection have been offered to its members for reflection.

Freedom of conscience is recognised by art. 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe approved a resolution on the right of conscientious objection in lawful medical care stating that “No personal, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion, the performance of a human miscarriage, or euthanasia or any act which could cause the death of a human foetus or embryo, for any reason”.

Note that the resolution refers not only to individuals but also to hospitals and institutions. This is precisely what is missing in the current legislation, which allows conscientious objection only to some healthcare professionals but not to entire hospitals and institutions. Any discussion on abortion inevitably has to address who can object to their performance and in what circumstances. The submissions have proposed different solutions. Why then there was no vote by Assembly members on conscientious objection? Why not even an ancillary recommendation about it?

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