One would need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of a saint to read through all 13,500 submissions received by the Citizens’ Assembly on the issue of abortion, let alone to choose a representative sample.
Some 6,000 submissions, half of them via email and the other half via the post, were received by the secretariat in the last two days before the December deadline.
Faced with such a mountain of testimony, the Citizens’ Assembly secretariat decided on a scientific formula to pick 300 submissions at random, with 185 from the internet and 115 sent by post, reflecting the overall ratio of online to postal submissions.
Each submission was given a unique alpha numeric identifier, a selection of which was then chosen by a random number generator.
The 300 submissions were collated into a book handed out to each of the 99 citizen members of the assembly.
At their discussion on Saturday, the members of the assembly pronounced themselves generally unimpressed with the calibre of submissions except in the case of a number of personal testimonies.
There are 14 tables at the Citizens’ Assembly, each with seven members, and a facilitator represents the views of the members at that table.
In reverse order, starting with table 14, the facilitators, one by one, articulated the frustrations of the members.
The facilitator at table 14 said: “It was the general view that we encountered a lot of what was largely unprovable information that was presented as fact and that was very difficult to substantiate in any way.
“There was also a feeling on both sides that there is a rather polarised view that didn’t reflect the nuance of the very complicated situation that the Eighth Amendment presents. A lot of arguments on both sides were more emotive than factual.”
Views, not arguments
The facilitator at table 13 expressed similar sentiments, saying: “There were strong views from both sides being expressed, rather than balanced arguments.”
The facilitator at table eight said the submissions on both sides were “absent of any well-constructed argument”.
Another said there was “nothing in the pro-life/pro-choice argument that surprised the citizens at this table”.
Similarly, the members at another table “expressed no surprise that there were no solutions put forward in the document. The document didn’t come up with any solutions”. Another table concurred unanimously that there “was nothing in it that was a surprise”.
The biggest complaint, though, was reserved for the issue of repetition.
The complaints were so frequent that assembly chairwoman Ms Justice Mary Laffoy said near the end of the discussion that there was no need for repetition about the extent of the repetition. She got the message.
Judging by the sample submissions, the repetition was all on the anti-abortion side and mostly confined to those sent by post.
Several letters were the same, with just the signatories being different.
Organisations including Donegal Pro-Life and the Childrens (sic) Protection Society sent the same submission to each member of the assembly.
If the anti-abortion campaigners felt the sheer volume of submissions would impress the assembly members, their tactics would appear to have backfired.
The facilitator at table one said its members were unanimous in their view that the “pro-life submissions offered no solutions and they did not analyse or address the complexity of the situation”.
The members at that table were also uncomfortable about receiving individual submissions.
The religious nature of many of the public contributions were noted and one facilitator asked: “If you were to take the religious submissions out of the submissions, what would be left?”
Another member stated that the assembly should simply bypass any of the emotional testimonies and concentrate on those that were factual.
Questions were asked as to how many submissions were made on each side of the argument, how many were repetitious and how many were from overseas.
Most facilitators said the citizens learned more from personal testimonies than they did from any other submissions.
Some tables noted the testimony of a woman who developed medical complications after taking an abortion pill.
Others noted the testimony of a student doctor who stated that giving the same rights “to a collection of cells” as to a woman was “practically and morally wrong”.
The testimony of a man who was born in a mother and baby home, and who stated that he would not have been born had abortion been available, was also praised.
Ms Justice Laffoy said the assembly will devote another session to the submissions in March.