Passions run high during well-attended WIT debate
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn, and with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by it laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
WIT’s main lecture hall on its Cork Road Campus hosted an impassioned debate on the Eighth Amendment on Tuesday, February 7th, marking the inaugural such event organised by WIT’s Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) Society.
The debate, which coincided with WIT’s Law Week (held in collaboration with WIT’s Law Society), generated considerable interest on social media, attracting a ‘Facebook Live’ audience which ran into several hundreds, while also trending heavily on Twitter.
The night also vividly demonstrated that the local student body, which mobilised so well for the Marriage Equality Referendum, is clearly engaged on this highly divisive matter, with the consensus of attendants keen to have their voice heard on the Eighth via referendum.
Speaking in favour of repealing the Eighth were Claire Cullen Del Sol of the Termination for Medical Reasons group, and Waterford Council of Trade Unions President Una Dunphy, who stood in last year’s general election for People Before Profit/Anti Austerity Alliance.
Speaking in favour of retaining the Eighth were Christian Democrat John D Walsh, who also stood in last year’s general election, and Youghal resident Anne Murray, who represented the Pro Life Campaign.
That all four speakers shook hands after almost 110 minutes of debating, just as they did before a word was uttered, was, in this (first-time) moderator’s opinion, proof of a worthwhile night’s discussion.
And it was a night which engaged the audience, with many on either side of the debate, on more than one occasion, ‘adding’ to the discussion despite my attempts to maintain order as best I could. At best, I partly succeeded in carrying out my duties and I suspect that no-one exhaled more deeply at the end of the debate than this reporter did.
Anne Murray spoke of “two tiny cells growing together, at amazing pace, to become a human being, whose body has 50 trillion cells…isn’t it mind-blowing that every single one of us in here tonight, started life in the exact fashion? Imagine, the heart beats by 21 days, before the mother knows she is pregnant; the brain is formed by 25 days and in the sixth week, massive brain development takes place. At eight weeks, everything to be found in a fully grown human being is in fact formed, and at 18 weeks, many mothers feel the baby’s movements…I know, at 17 weeks, I felt a flutter…we know many stories of babies living beyond a doctor’s ‘expiry date’ and isn’t it better that that chance, as provided by the Eighth Amendment, is there for any family’s sake?”
Una Dunphy believes a woman should have the “right to make her own decision regarding reproduction, including the right to a free, safe and legal abortion”.
She added: “Being pro-choice doesn’t mean you’re pro-abortion; being pro-choice, in my view, is about whether a woman in Ireland can choose to have the child or whether she does not and we want mothers to have autonomy in Ireland when it comes to this matter…and the (Repeal The Eighth) campaign is definitely growing…
“Poorer women, particularly those who cannot afford to travel to England, are the mothers most particularly impacted upon by the Eighth Amendment. Most Irish women who travel (to Britain or other jurisdictions where abortion is legalised) actually travel later and have later terminations, which makes matters much more complicated for Irish women when compared to their European counterparts.”
John Walsh said that the rights of the unborn must continue to be championed and safeguarded through the existing Constitutional provision, stating that eight (if not nine) of the 13 human rights currently provided for in Bunreacht na hÉireann are applicable “before you are born”.
“Those rights are there, enumerated and covered by the Eighth Amendment, and were it to be repealed, then those rights would be gone. In essence this is a very simple issue, it’s about equal rights for all human beings. That’s what it is. A human being comes into existence at conception, not at birth – birth is only a stage of human development – and parents don’t own their children, they’re not pieces of private property. The State protects children from the very beginning and right up to adulthood.”
Mr Walsh also challenged the appropriateness of the use of the phrase ‘fatal foetal abnormality’, re-iterating his belief that ‘life-limiting condition’ represented more prudent phraseology given that, referring to his own birth by caesarean section, “I was born dead…but Doctor Vaughan gave me the kiss of life, and that’s why I’m here today”.
Claire Cullen Del Sol (“I’m not a political person”) told the audience about her third child, Alex, “my icing on the cake baby” as she put it.
“I was so stunned to be pregnant after we’d tried so hard and it having took so long to have our second baby, that she felt like a gift.” But during her 20-week scan, it emerged that “everything wasn’t alright”.
Ms Cullen De Sol stated: “I can’t tell you what that feeling was like, and right then I felt that was the worst I was ever going to feel in my life, but it wasn’t…and I was told at 22 weeks that my baby was going to die.”
She was subsequently told that she could travel to England, “deliver your baby and leave her there and come home to your other two children…or you can stay here in Ireland and wait for her to die and then give birth”. At 26 weeks, having made the decision to stay at home, “after weeks of hiding in my house…she died.”
Ms Cullen Del Sol said she wanted her entire family to “spend at least one night all together, under one roof, but that only happened after (Alex) died, when I was destroyed, and that was because of the Eighth Amendment and nothing else”.
The lengthy and, at times, heated debate, saw each speaker respond to questions submitted by students and online contributors, with some of the perspectives offered by Mr Walsh drawing a strong reaction from the audience, both audibly and online.
But ultimately, and thankfully, the overwhelming majority of the audience kept their emotions in check, which was clearly no easy task given the topic under discussion.
And it’s an issue that this newspaper shall return to, reflecting the many and varied perspectives on the Eighth Amendment, in the weeks and months that lie ahead.
Many thanks to WIT FLAC’s Colm Kelly Ryan and his committee colleagues for inviting me to moderate the debate and to WIT law lecturer, Dr Jennifer Kavanagh for her assistance. Established 10 months ago, WIT FLAC runs legal information clinics for students in need of assistance, in co-ordination with local lawyers. “We never had a debate like this on campus before,” said Colm Kelly Ryan, “and it was not before time. We were very pleased with how the evening preceded and we’d like to thank all who contributed to making the debate a success.”