Claudia Dalby meets with Colm O’Gorman, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland to talk about the eighth amendment.
As we move towards the summer and the likelihood of referenda increases, most notably on the eighth amendment, anticipation is rising and the discussion is getting louder. A reliable point of reference for many is the Marriage Equality referendum. Held in 2015, it was a decision on human rights that many were expectant to see passed, while others were desperate to preserve what they saw to be traditional marriage. During the lead up to that referendum, the media provided a platform for debate from both sides, giving the public a place to engage in and with debates with varying levels of balance and fact. Approaching the referendum of the eighth amendment this summer, the University Observer spoke to Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland and a prominent figure during the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage.
There will certainly be a huge amount of debate surrounding the issue, and this is understandable. How RTÉ and other news organisations manage the discourse they platform, will be important so legal requirements are followed to ensure balance, but it is also that the media have a way to stabilise the line between opinion and fact. O’Gorman believes Irish people “need to have a conversation about our public discourse, and how we maintain an informative, engaged, objective, respectful public discourse, because we don’t have that.” From 2013 to 2016, as interest in the eighth amendment began to increase, media reporting focused “mainly on drama within the political system, what the parties were saying on the issue.” He found that there was little to no analysis of the issue with no focus on the reasons women have abortions or women’s experiences, details on the medical procedure and administration of the termination. This has meant people have needed to find their information elsewhere, as following the media coverage leads to more questions than answers.
“69% of people trusted doctors, and… 62% trusted women who have had abortions”
In October 2017, a poll was taken by Amnesty which questioned 1,000 people on their knowledge, perspective, and standpoint on the issue, as well as aspects such as religious influence, how comfortable they were talking about their opinions on the issue, gaps in their knowledge, and how they wanted these gaps filled. Most of all it asked what outlets people felt they could rely on for information. “We thought it was quite reassuring that 69% of people trusted doctors, and the next group was 62% who trusted women who have had abortions.”
What was most telling were the groups that people didn’t trust. Only 7% trusted politicians, and a meagre 9% trusted the media for information on abortion. O’Gorman feels that “when we published that polling, we thought there would be a degree of self examination by the media, but it was largely ignored by the media, despite it being the most detailed, nuanced, and multifaceted research on abortion in Ireland.” O’Gorman believes that the reason people do not trust the media is the lack of analysis the media provides. While people are told that abortion is divisive, that politicians are arguing about it, and that there is varying amounts of scandal surrounding it, people do not believe this is the information they need when making a decision.
“O’Gorman believes this would be a huge step forward in developing a framework that will deliver access to safe abortion.”
The question then is: is abortion as divisive as we have been led to believe? What are the extremes? Organisations such as the Iona Institute and Love Both are prevalent on social media, attempting to keep their views relevant and appealing. Amnesty’s polling shows that 5% of people in Ireland are personally opposed to abortion in all circumstances, “but this is not an extreme position,” argues O’Gorman, “because of that 5%, half would vote to repeal the eighth as their objection is personal opinion.” Recent polling shows that there is a majority of Irish people in favour of changing Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion. This week, the wording of the upcoming referendum on the eighth will be released following the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly. During that assembly, “we saw evidence based analysis, real and meaningful discussion, and challenging, robust and difficult conversation.” O’Gorman thinks this is crucial when approaching a second human rights referendum.
What changed during the Marriage Equality referendum, according to O’Gorman, was that there was an “interesting departure from the usual way the media dealt with debate during referendums, such as rigorous rule applied to the amount of time a speaker had during the debate.” In looking towards the eighth, the media needs to provide people with objective evidence and allow them to make their own analysis on the basis of fact, which includes details of abortion procedure and outcomes, and the reality of women’s experiences. “Amnesty will certainly launch a campaign after the wording is announced.” He says that in Amnesty “we believe the job of the media needs to be to robustly interrogate the positions [that] people [are] putting forward, regardless of that position.” He expects that every organisation, and every side to the issue, should be at the end of rigorous questioning with viewpoints and facts being challenged.
O’Gorman recalled speaking to a former minister who said: “in Ireland we are pathologically incapable of having a position on abortion.” O’Gorman believes that this “may have been the case before, but is not anymore.” If the media provides a space for people “to listen, to learn, develop thinking based on evidence, and look at the outcome objectively,” O’Gorman believes this would be a huge step forward in developing a framework that will deliver access to safe abortion.