Another Societal Milestone Passed; What Next for Progressing Ireland?

(Peter Hannon, Dublin)

Pro-‘yes’ street art in Dublin by Shota Kotake featuring Fred Rickwood and Charles Hedges from the Father Ted episode ‘A Song for Europe’ (Peter Hannon, Dublin).

Last Saturday’s overwhelmingly positive referendum outcome in support of constitutional recognition for same-sex marriage is a great result for progress, equality, liberty, inclusion, rights for everyone and all things good in Ireland. It was a proud and historic moment for Irish society generally and especially for those Irish citizens living in the Republic who had and positively utilised the residential privilege to vote. To think homosexual acts were only decriminalised in the state 22 years ago in 1993

Having found themselves under the repressive moral and social grip of an overbearing Catholic Church for most of the last century, the Irish people in the south are finally demonstrating an admirable collective moral courage in shaking off the last remaining vestiges of a residual and rigid legal conservatism from that time. For that, they must be congratulated. Saturday was a massive day for inspiring people like David Norris who have spent their entire lives being subjected to and fighting homophobic prejudice whilst campaigning for equal recognition, simply so they could just be themselves and live in the same way as any other decent Irish citizen.

And homophobia – that including expressions of disdain or hostility towards or support for discriminatory and exclusionary measures against gay people, in all its forms, including direct, indirect, explicit and subtle – should be called out as such when it is witnessed or experienced, for if those who are engaged in it are allowed to stage-manage the terms and vocabulary of debate by disingenuously crying “persecution” so as to prevent others from being able to effectively confront them on their prejudice transparent to all but themselves, we may as well not have debate at all. Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s words ought to be instructive for those who so keenly play the “victim” card when the term is used to expose them:

Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

From a personal perspective, it was pleasing to see my native constituency of Donegal North-East deliver a majority ‘yes’ vote. As a whole, the people in the south have demonstrated they are prepared to lead Ireland forward as a modern, progressive society and into the future with the increasingly liberal spirit of the majority of people on the island behind them. Only Ireland’s north-eastern corner now lags behind legally on the issue of same-sex marriage recognition due to the dominant position in power there of the same old obstructionist dinosaurs who, I suppose in fairness to them, were able to learn at least one word during their lifetimes in spite of their devout obtuseness; unfortunately that word was “no“. I would echo the sentiment of an Sionnach Fionn with regard to the present undesirable situation for those in the north:

It is unacceptable that Irish men and women, regardless of their sexual orientation or original gender, should be denied their full rights as citizens of this republic simply because they are forced to live under the authority of the “Northern Pale”. Civil rights – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – cannot be “partitioned” as our nation is.

Indeed, those Ulster unionists of evangelical persuasion and pre-Enlightenment era modes of thinking are perhaps even more conservative on broad social matters than the Irish Catholic Church might be, but their intolerance and veto too shall be toppled in time. Equality is the future. Whether entirely rational or not, even secular unionists in the north have long and into the modern era feared that all-island Irish independence would result in Catholic domination over the Irish and Ulster Protestant tradition; “Home Rule is Rome Rule” went the old slogan of protest, but howls of condemnation in a similar vain today would certainly ring very hollow. The southern advancement and openness towards inclusion for all is something that can only help build concrete bridges of unity between the island’s divided communities and its politically-partitioned people in the future.

So, socially-speaking, on top of ensuring island-wide recognition for same-sex marital rights, what is next for progressing Ireland in the immediate? Whilst I am absolutely delighted with Saturday’s result and feel a distinct sense of pride in that our national identity can now truly be said to be a forward-looking one (somewhat amusingly, the liberal German ego, feeling leapfrogged by its peripheral European partner on such a key contemporary social issue, has resultantly found itself in a haunted state of discomfort, questioning its own assured sense of cultural self-regard, and forced to reformulate its lowly opinion of “the arch-Catholic conservative backwater that progress forgot“; I think they call my feeling a sense of schadenfreude, so forgive me!), there still remain further radical steps to be navigated in regard to social issues.

With movement at last now also being made on matters like gender identity recognition in the south (although the proposed Gender Recognition Bill 2013 is not without its faults), the very pressing concern of properly recognising and protecting full reproductive rights for women must be the next major social question tackled by Irish society, both north and south of the border. I am more specifically referring to the need for Irish women to have full bodily autonomy and the free choice to family-plan. It must entirely be a woman’s business what she can and cannot do with her own body, with what is inside it and with what is entirely dependent upon it. Neither the state, nor anyone else, when it comes down to it, has any business restricting a woman’s autonomy over her own body.

The present situation in the south whereby it must be established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life of a pregnant woman (even if her state of health is severely grave) before she might be legally permitted to have her pregnancy terminated is an intolerable one. The extraordinarily restrictive Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013, which was introduced with the inadequate intention of providing medical practitioners with legal guidelines – mere clarification of the restrictive law – in terms of the rare circumstance when a termination might be justified in response to the tragic 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, from whom access to abortive treatment was withheld despite repeated requests and her deteriorating health condition on account of complications arising from her pregnancy, would not actually have guaranteed the saving of Mrs. Halappanavar’s life. Unfortunately, women’s experiences do not feature heavily in Irish discourse on abortion.

The restrictive and still-uncertain nature of southern Irish law over this sphere also led directly to the absolutely obscene and abhorrent situation just last December whereby a woman, who was clinically brain-dead, was being kept alive on a life-support machine over a matter of weeks and against her family’s wishes for the reason that she had been four-months-pregnant when she died in hospital from a fall and injury to her head. The exceptionally grim resulting reality was described in graphic and distressing detail in the Irish Independent:

Dr Frances Colreavy, an expert in intensive care medicine from the Mater Hospital, said she had concerns about the current situation being prolonged.

“I would describe it as experimental medicine,” she said.

She examined the woman yesterday and found her face to be puffy. There was an oozing wound to her head and a possible infection to her abdomen.

“On examination, the lady who is deceased about three weeks does not look well. There is a photograph on the windowsill in her room of her and her two children, but there is no resemblance,” said Dr Colreavy.

Make-up was applied to the woman’s face as her two young children, were visiting her yesterday for the first time since she had become brain dead.

“The little girl, when she saw her for the first time, was very distressed,” said Dr Colreavy.

She outlined how she observed six different syringe pumps beside the hospital bed and how the woman was being given a range of antibiotics to combat infections.

She said there was a huge problem with fluid therapy. The woman’s bowels have to be stimulated, a wound to her head needs continual dressing and she needs to be turned regularly to avoid pressure sores.

The doctor outlined that when the woman was moved from a hospital in Dublin to her current hospital, she was showing signs of pneumonia.

Referring to the wound to the head, she said the woman was also being treated with an MRSA drug and had neurosurgical meningitis.

She said she did not want to upset members of the family present, but the “brain is rotting” and there was “evidence of fungus growing” on part of the brain.

Dr Colreavy said the woman’s abdomen was “unlike any” she had ever seen.

There were blue, red and purple colouring along the stretch marks, which suggested there may be an infection.

An MRI would be required to investigate this, but the facility is not available at the hospital.

A chest X ray indicated huge amounts of fluid inside or outside the lungs.

Even the Catholic clergy were appalled by the horrific and tragic nature of the circumstances, but this was an unintended situation that arose directly from the very restrictions they pushed so hard to impose upon Irish women by enshrining the equal right to life of the “unborn” and “mother” into Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1983.

Thankfully, sanity prevailed over the shame-inducing ordeal and the High Court swiftly ruled that, on the basis the foetus had no reasonable chance of survival, the life-support could be switched off. It was bad enough that medical practitioners overseeing the woman in hospital had felt too stunted to act decisively by the surrounding legal uncertainty that a legal action by the family was necessitated in order to force some desperately-needed clarity, but what might have transpired had the medical experts and court felt there was a significant chance the foetus would have survived with health? Might the deceased woman – her remains in rot – have remained hooked up to the life-support machine, essentially performing the function of an incubator for the state, for another five months with her grieving family, desperate to provide her with a dignified farewell, resigned to simply waiting against their will for the return of her to them? The present legislation is clearly woefully inept, even at doing what it is supposed to do. The legal situation in the north is just as draconian for Irish women; major revamp is required on both sides of the border.

With enthusiasm and progressive wind in Irish sails, can last Saturday prove a national watershed moment? Let us hope that the southern extension of marital rights to same-sex couples can now encourage us as a nation to think more imaginatively about further all-island socio-political reform and what other rights and protections we can extend to our many citizens in want and need.

The above piece was also published on Slugger O’Toole.

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