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Clare Martin writes about recent changes in abortion legislation in two different countries, and what these stories tell us about the value of deliberative democracy in a polarised age.

Recently, a country with entrenched divisions about abortion made a legal reversal that reverberated through the national psyche. And no, I don’t mean the US.

In 2018 Ireland repealed the 8th amendment to its constitution which gave equal value to the foetus and the mother, effectively paving the way for legal abortion.  This was a breath-taking pivot for a country where traditional, religious values had previously held sway. 

What’s so striking about this story is the democratic process that led up to it. The Irish parliament commissioned a citizen’s assembly. Ninety-nine people were selected to take part,  with a range of views from pro-life to pro-choice to undecided. They met over a period of 5 weeks, hearing evidence on all sides of the issues. The reports were streamed live or published online. The citizen’s assembly’s recommendations were then put to parliament where they were debated, then they were put to a national referendum.

The US Supreme court’s reversal of Roe v Wade hasn’t resolved the abortion issue in America. Rather it’s inflamed division, striking a victory on one side of the political scales, in a way that will surely just amplify that back-and forth swing of the political sea-saw that is US politics today. By contrast, Ireland’s approach has had the opposite effect. Enduring differences of opinion persist – of course they do. But by going down the deliberative democracy route they found a deeper way to explore diverse views and generate trust in the solution. 

Reflecting on these two events has got me thinking about the different kinds of questions that reconcilers and activists ask themselves. Where activists ask, ‘how do we win?’ reconcilers ask, ‘how do we design a process that generates trust?’ There’s room for both kinds of questions. Activists and reconcilers have different roles to play, both important in a democracy. But I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the reconcilers’ questions, especially at peak moments of conflict.  As we move deeper into an age of turmoil and division, we need to use the tools of deliberative democracy to forge solutions more people can trust. Bringing reconciliation into the heart of our civic conversations could help us to do this. 

If you’d like to explore reconciliatory approaches to working with conflict do join us for this half-day, online workshop on July 25. St Ethelburga’s has a long history of facilitating healing from conflict. If you’d like to learn more about our unique history, have a listen to our new 20 minute, narrated audio-tour, which is full of rich story-telling and intriguing historical details.

On September 9th we’ll be hosting a free lunchtime webinar with author, former politician and prisoner, now Anglican minister, Jonathan Aitken about growing personal resilience for turbulent times.

Clare Martin is Co-Director of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.