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"Unrepresentative sham" of a Citizen's Assembly throws abortion referendum into dispute

22 February 2018


Does this invalidate the whole process?

Simon Harris is also being cagey about the unrestricted abortion proposal. 

The Citizen's Assembly, set-up by the Irish government to consider the legalisation of abortion has been branded as a sham after it emerged that members of the body were improperly recruited. The Assembly, whose recommendations served as the basis of the government's own proposal to delete Ireland’s constitutional protection for unborn children, was supposed to be independent and made-up of a representative sample of the Irish people. The whole exercise is now being slammed by critics as a "unrepresentative sham" following the disclosure that the polling company responsible for selecting members had warned the government that a group of just 99 people could never represent the views of the entire population. 

The Citizen's Assembly

The Assembly, which discussed the role of Ireland’s pro-life Eighth Amendment last year, was chaired by a Supreme Court judge, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. In April 2017, a proposal to make abortion available on demand up to 12 weeks was supported by 48% of Assembly members. This recommendation was taken up by the Oireachtas Committee and will become law if the Eighth Amendment is repealed.

The Assembly was repeatedly accused of bias throughout its proceedings but the results of an audit carried out by the polling company, Red C, has now brought the entire process into question.

Randomly recruited?

Critics are now calling for a complete review of the body after it was revealed that seven replacement members of the Citizens' Assembly were improperly recruited. Instead of being randomly selected by cold-calling door to door, they were recruited by phone, and were identified as potential members through the friends and family of the recruiter.

The recruiter has been suspended pending an internal investigation, and Justice Laffoy has called the incident "regrettable". However, she insisted that "this is an isolated incident, and that it has no impact on the work of the assembly on previous topics."

The Pro-Life Campaign has called for a full audit of the Assembly recruitment process, and a shouting match broke out in the Dail today as Fianna Fáil’s Eamon Scanlon called for the referendum to be postponed.

Tip of the iceburg

However, the SaveThe8th Campaign says that the issue goes beyond the improper recruitment of replacement volunteers. 

They argue that the audit reveals that the Assembly was warned in advance that it could not accurately represent the population with just 99 members, and would have margins of error exceeding 10% even assuming perfectly scientific recruitment processes.

In addition, the audit reveals that the Assembly chose, against the advice of Red C research, to water down these recruitment processes by refusing to incentivise members of the public to take part, something Red C warned that would make the Assembly even less representative.

Neither of these facts, which were known to the Assembly at the time of its first meeting, were made known to the public.

Save the 8th’s Niamh Ui Bhrian said: "This Assembly was an unrepresentative sham. What is more, it is now clear that the Assembly itself knew itself to be an unrepresentative sham. The public are now being asked to vote based on the recommendations of an unrepresentative sham."

Denying facts

There were also signs yesterday that the Health Minister is seeking to muddy the waters around the 12 weeks proposal, which many people feels goes too far. Simon Harris insisted in the Dail that abortion would remain restricted to certain circumstances, even if the Eighth Amendment is repealed. However, he didn't specify any legal restrictions before 12 weeks, saying that the proposal aimed "to make terminations lawful up to 12 weeks in order to provide care to those women in crisis pregnancies who might otherwise be forced to travel, to take the abortion pill unsupervised, or who have been raped."

Pro-life groups have also warned that government proposals which seek to legalise abortion after 12 weeks on grounds of mental health will mean the introduction of abortion virtually on demand.

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