“Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?!”

A Mothers and Fathers Matter poster promoting a 'no' vote. (Source: Mothers and Fathers Matter.)

A Mothers and Fathers Matter poster promoting a ‘no’ vote. (Source: Mothers and Fathers Matter.)

By virtue of an upcoming referendum set for the 22nd of May, the Republic of Ireland looks set to join a growing list of states worldwide in recognising same-sex marriage. Legal advisors to the state are of the opinion that an amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish constitution) is required to redefine the constitutional conception of marriage, which, up until now, has been interpreted as being limited to being between a man and a woman (although this opinion is not universally held by all of those within the legal profession in Ireland). Consequently, a referendum on the matter has been decreed and the Republic will, this Friday, be the first state in the world to recognise same-sex marriage by means of a public vote if the motion passes.

Pre-referendum polls indicate that most voters are in favour of the proposed amendment by a significant margin. If the motion passes, as expected, a new subsection 4 will be inserted into article 41 of the constitution. The proposed text in Irish and English (the Irish taking precedence in law) is as follows:

Féadfaidh beirt, gan beann ar a ngnéas, conradh pósta a dhéanamh de réir dlí.

Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

The prospect of an inclusion in the constitution to explicitly recognise equal marital rights for same-sex couples has proven divisive in a country where conservative Catholic doctrine has held sway for the majority of the last century and since the southern state’s inception in 1922. Catholicism, along with Gaelic culture and the rural idyll, has long been seen as a quintessential aspect of the officially-promoted independent Irish national identity. It serviced a budding state keen to assert itself in contrast to its old colonial master; a Britain perceived as urban, anglophone and Protestant. Whilst the stranglehold of the Catholic Church over Irish social life has been dissipating considerably since the 1990s, with many of modern Ireland’s self-identifying or cultural Catholics now being little more than à-la-carte or nominally inscribed, there remains a residual legal conservatism buttressed by a significant section of the population – mainly rural-dwellers of the elder generation, but not necessarily bad or nasty people – who are strictly practicing and still heavily-influenced by the Church’s guidance.

In promoting a ‘no’ vote, whilst simultaneously trying to stay clear of out-of-favour or impolitical religious references, as well as to avoid being perceived as illiberal or intolerant towards the LGBT community and LGBT rights, traditionalist Catholic-inspired pressure groups, such as Mothers and Fathers Matter and the Iona Institute, have had to bring exclusively child-centric arguments to the general debateDamian O’Broin joked on Twitter: “I’m just waiting for the No side to claim that has nothing to do with gay people…” These groups have been focusing on a disingenuous moral defence of children’s welfare and have claimed, for example, that a child’s “right” to a mother and a father will be threatened if the amendment passes.

This plea for pity has been wielded as an appeal to emotion over reason and constitutes a logical fallacy in the form of a red herring. (For who would be just so cold and callous as to argue against the moral cause of “children’s welfare”?…) A right to a mother and a father does not exist and has never existed in Irish law, for it would be practically impossible to enforce such a right, nor do children have a right to choose who their parent or parents might be anyway, for obvious reasons. These groups have further muddied the waters of debate by conflating the separate matter of surrogacy (something not exclusively related to same-sex couples anyway) with a referendum proposal that deals solely with extending marital rights to same-sex couples. This referendum is not about children.

A Mothers and Fathers Matter poster promoting a 'no' vote. (Source: Mothers and Fathers Matter.)

A Mothers and Fathers Matter poster promoting a ‘no’ vote. (Source: Mothers and Fathers Matter.)

I fear the retired Archdeacon of Dublin, Gordon Linney, was not too far wrong when he called the Mothers and Fathers Matter campaign posters out on their implicit homophobia. Of them, he stated that the “real target is gay people” and that they were “a crude attempt to discredit them as suitable parents” with “the implication [being] that gay people are at best incapable of caring for children or at worst a danger to children”.

Gay people have long been subjected to the nonsensical presumption that they and the activities in which they engage are unnatural; as if the concept of opposite-sex marriage is somehow more natural than the concept of same-sex marriage. This happens to form one of the most popular moral attacks against homosexuality out there. Both types of marriage are non-static social constructs and, thus, both are inherently as natural or unnatural as each other (if one indeed wishes to invoke such a false and meaningless dichotomy as “natural/unnatural” in the first place). The demeaning and lazy presumption that homosexuality is unnatural, which unfortunately still happens to be casually accepted by many in Ireland, has endured as an undercurrent to the superficial sugar-coated exterior of the ‘no’ campaign.

For gay people (also of nature, like every other human being in existence), being gay feels like and is the most natural thing in the world. It is as natural for them as eating, drinking, riding a bike or playing sport might be for any human. Even if homosexuality was unnatural, why would that automatically render it morally wrong anyway? Nature has given us plenty of diseases and disasters, whilst artificial creations have long given man and woman great happiness. If a gay couple are fit to raise children, why stop them or deny them the rights and support others are afforded in this sphere for the social benefit? That can be entirely good and natural too. Why should opposite-sex couples be uniquely privileged, as if to suggest they will always perform an inherently better job at parenting a child?

It is worth quoting the words of Senator David Norris in order to expose the ludicrousness of the arguments of the ‘no’ side in tandem with the present situation:

The forthcoming Marriage Equality Referendum is just exactly that – about equality. That is why the “No” side dislike the description and are doing everything they can to muddy the waters. They have been clever in a rather nasty way about introducing an apparent concern for the welfare of children. This has nothing to do with the Equality Referendum. These issues will be dealt with in the Children and Family Relationships Bill well in advance of the Referendum.

However let’s look at it. The facts that the no campaign don’t take into account are that:

i) Gay people can already adopt but incredibly they can only adopt as single people. This means that if the adopting parent dies the partner is left in limbo with regard to relationship to the children that they have helped to rear and to nourish. This situation is intolerable and must end. The Children and Family Relationships Bill will end this.

ii) More than one third of children born in this state are now born outside marriage therefore “to single mothers”. This is a huge number in comparison with those reared in gay families. If the “No” side are so perturbed about the fate of children not being reared by an orthodox “mummy and daddy” what do they propose to do about this large number of children? Take them from their undeserving parents and distribute them to orphanages and other institutions as happened in the past? I don’t think so.

This reveals at the heart of the alleged concern a prejudice against gay people rearing children, even their own. All reputable studies show that there are no disadvantages to children being raised in the context of same-sex relationships and all the main psychiatric and psychological and psychotherapeutic organisations have resoundingly confirmed this. Under the new arrangements gay people will be allowed to apply to adopt as a couple. This does not confer any right to adopt, merely a right to apply and the adoption agencies will make a determination in the best interests of the child.

Oran Doyle, head of the school of law at Trinity College, Dublin, bolstered this assertion and debunked, with great clarity, the main claims of the ‘no’ campaign in response to a piece in the Irish Times by fellow law professor William Binchy. Along with spreading fear over the supposed potential impact to children’s welfare and the matter of surrogacy, ‘no’ campaigners have argued that religious freedom and the right to conscience will be negatively impacted. Doyle wrote the following in his conclusion to quell these popular concerns (although the preceding main body of the article is also well worth ingesting):

This referendum, if passed, would have two effects. Most obviously, gay people could get married. Related to this, the Oireachtas would no longer be able, solely on the ground that they are of the same sex, to discriminate against gay couples.

However, the Oireachtas would retain its power to legislate to protect the best interests of children; and the courts would still have to decide on the basis of each child’s best interests. Such legislation and decisions would be constitutional even if unfavourable to same-sex couples. The Oireachtas would keep the same broad power to regulate or prohibit surrogacy. And freedom of religious conscience – always strongly protected by the courts – would remain unaffected.

Keith Mills, a gay man who is campaigning for a ‘no’ vote on behalf of Mothers and Fathers Matter, argues (in the promotional video below) under the astoundingly-insulting presumption that children are fundamental to marriage (they are not and many happily-married and constitutionally-recognised two-person families already exist in Ireland without children, be that involuntarily or by choice), that the Irish people must recognise the valuable difference that a mother and a father can respectively bring to the marital family in light of the prospect of married same-sex couples being able to enjoy the right to apply to adopt.

Mills states that to claim “there is no distinction between the union of a man and a woman and of two men or two women” is “wrong” and “ridiculous”, but he does not offer any further reason as to why we should trust such an assertion to be true. Is it intuitively so? That is certainly disputable, for it is a claim that relies wholly upon the rigid, out-moded and ultimately-discredited essentialist stereotypes of “masculinity” and “femininity”. (Mills also erroneously attempts to equate already-existing civil partnership rights with marital rights, save for the constitutional protection of the latter, despite differences.)

All relationships are unique in their own way, whether they are between a man and a woman, between a man and a man or between a woman and a woman. There is no reason to assume that a same-sex couple will be inherently limited to offering a child less diversity or quality of nurturing, emotion and experience than an opposite-sex couple simply because of their shared biological sex. There is no necessary reason either why two men cannot enrich a child with love and qualities traditionally viewed as “feminine”, nor is there any necessary reason why two women cannot enrich a child with love and qualities traditionally viewed as “masculine”. There is no reason why two men, if they are so inclined, cannot demonstrate, for example, the traditionally “feminine” traits of care and empathy just because tired social assumptions might deny the possibility of them providing such.

All humans are different and possess differing qualities with which they can enrich and nurture their children, whether those children be their biological offspring or adopted. Different people simply are who they are and emotional diversity is not dependent upon a combination of opposite biological sexes. It is dependent on a whole myriad of other factors. Ultimately, it is the quality of love offered by a parent or parents that is crucial to a child’s development; not the biological sex of the parent or parents. Even if, say, two men, deemed fit and suitable to adopt a child, in raising that child were to practically and exclusively impart traditionally “masculine” qualities, that would be their choice as independent parents and there is no reason to assume that the experiencing child would be rendered socially dysfunctional or become somehow deficient. To suggest that there is an ideal or perfect family unit to the exclusion of “non-traditional” types is offensive; to suggest that there might be an ideal or perfect standard of child is just downright obnoxious.

Those campaigning for a ‘no’ vote have been quick to paint themselves as a suffering and voiceless minority subjected to suppression and intimidation by the majority. This is in spite of the obligation upon the state broadcaster, RTÉ, to ensure balance of coverage. Protecting balance is vital in a healthy democracy, but one might even say that such protection has provided the ‘no’ side with a disproportionately loud voice considering support for their cause is in the distinct minority. Their voice is being heard. If ‘no’ people have felt unreasonably badgered or that opposing views have been forced upon them in some way, that is unquestionably wrong, but it is important to acknowledge an important distinction within the general debate here. Forcing one’s views upon others is not inherent to the ‘yes’ campaign or vote. If it occurs, it occurs as a practical shortcoming and, whilst that is disappointing, the over-riding philosophy behind ‘yes’ theoretically remains one of tolerance (despite possible practical intolerance experienced by some) and respect for diversity. On the other hand, forcing your views over, onto and into other people’s personal lives, even when it has no impact upon your life whatsoever, is inherent to the ‘no’ case; it is essentially what a ‘no’ vote encompasses as it would directly impinge and enforce (or sustain a situation of) discrimination upon a certain section of Irish society who would remain without access to a set of rights that are available to most Irish people if they ever wish to avail of them.

Many, possibly even most, of those citizens voting ‘no’ this Friday will be people who may never have encountered homosexuality or gay people in their day-to-day lives, in any practical sense or for any real intents or purposes. As Dara Ó Briain recently tweeted: “The best thing about campaigning for a “No” vote in the is, even if you lose, it will make no difference to your life whatsoever.” It is perhaps easier then under such circumstances to view gay people as abstract, distant or irrelevant concepts rather than as real people with the same hopes, desires, dreams, emotional needs, qualities and faults as any other Irish person. The ‘no’ side have desperately and disingenuously tried to make this a debate about children. It’s not; it’s about tolerance, recognition, progress and equality. Gay people are citizens of our republic too and it is high time that Irish marital rights, accessible to most, were extended to them.

Unfortunately, as an Irish citizen living abroad, I will not have the privilege of voting on Friday, but, if I could, I would be voting in favour of ‘yes’. To my fellow Irish citizens with a vote, I would strongly encourage you to use it so that we as a nation can take an important historical step towards finally shaking off the last legal vestiges of the stifling grip the Catholic Church had over Irish social life for the majority of the last century. Yes to equality!

An abridged version of the above article also featured here on Slugger O’Toole.

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