Irish people living abroad have been asked to “make their voices heard” in the contentious debate over abortion laws in Ireland. The call went out from the first-ever meeting of the 100-person Citizens’ Assembly last weekend in Malahide, Co. Dublin. It’s a gathering, under chairperson Supreme Court Justice Mary Laffoy, which has already been acclaimed by a European political commentator as belonging to “the most innovative democracy in Europe.” The assembly, drafted from the general public, gave priority to the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Irish Constitution which bans abortion in Ireland.

Assembly members asked to hear anonymously from women who have had abortions, as well as from pro-choice and anti-abortion groups and from people representing disadvantaged communities. They outlined their wishes to hear a range of expertise and viewpoints to help them reach their conclusions on issues surrounding the Eighth Amendment.

Over a day and a half, the members heard presentations by medical, legal and ethical practitioners and academics. They also said that at future meetings they wish to hear from representatives of abortion clinics in Britain which deal with Irish women about the actual medical procedures involved in abortion, and from those involved in pre- and post-abortion counseling.

Laffoy said she had made a very conscious decision that the members receive the facts, without commentary about the perceived advantages or disadvantages of the current regime.

“It is essential that the members have that strong grounding, to allow them to be able to make their own judgments about material that is presented to them in future weekends,” she said.

The assembly will meet again on January 7-8 for what will be the second of four meetings on the topic. Following the series of meetings Laffoy will prepare a report for the Oireachtas outlining the conclusions and recommendations of the assembly.

Flemish Belgian author and political commentator David Van Reybrouck has described the assembly as belonging to the most innovative democracy in Europe. In an open letter last week to several European newspapers, he said European democracies are in crisis because they rely on elections as a means of giving citizens a voice.

He wrote, “Come on, take Europeans seriously. Let them speak. Why educate the masses if they are still not allowed to talk?

“Look at Ireland, the most innovative democracy in Europe. A few weeks ago, a random sample of 100 Irish citizens, drafted by lot, was brought together into a Citizens’ Assembly. This is a country that trusts its citizens, instead of fearing them.”