Thursday 8 December 2016

Difficult issues on family have yet to be confronted

Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30

Irish voters will decide on same-sex marriage on May 22
Irish voters will decide on same-sex marriage on May 22

For more than 20 years, I have been singing and playing violin at the weddings of family and friends. I've played at Catholic weddings, Protestant ones, mixed faith, mixed race, Humanist, gay and straight ones.

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For all their glorious differences, one thing is the same: a marriage is the coming together of two people who love each other asking that we - their family, friends and the State - bear public witness to that love and commitment and protect it.

When the drafters of the Irish Constitution pledged to guard against attack the institution of marriage on which the family is based, they did not define what marriage or family was.

They did not need to. Marriage, traditionally understood, was marriage between a man and woman. Marriage - traditionally understood - was insoluble until 20 years ago, when the constitutional ban on divorce was overturned.

And marriage, traditionally understood, held that husbands could have sex with their wives whether they wanted to or not - it is hard to believe that we only criminalised marital rape in 1990.

I reflected a lot about the changing nature of marriage and family last Saturday when I visited Éamon de Valera's grave in Glasnevin Cemetery. How Dev's vision of a founding document that would cherish all of the children equally actually created a constitutional apartheid of an almost Orwellian kind that holds that all children are equal - but some are more equal than others.

Gay couples are not the only family units consigned to the back seats of the separate-but-equal constitutional bus. The elevation of the family based on marriage to a super constitutional status has also served to discriminate against all other family forms in Irish society, including family units led by lone parents, co-habitees as well as separated and unmarried fathers.

But the constitutional discrimination and emotional cruelty inflicted on our gay sisters and brothers, on many of the nation's children struggling with their sexuality, is unforgivable.

They are told that they are not equal. That their personhood, their human need to love and be loved, their desire and capacity to parent, is of a different order than ours, that they are not natural.

My heart sank last Saturday when I read Bishop Martin Drennan's pastoral letter to the diocese of Galway. In his letter, Bishop Drennan said that the union of a man and a woman is quite different from the union of two men or two women. "By nature alone they differ," said the Bishop, adding - somewhat curiously - that the marriage-equality referendum is not about same-sex relationships or about equality.

I get queasy when "nature" and natural law theory are invoked to justify injustice and cement social and religious structures that fly in the face of fairness. It was natural law, after all, that Christian moralists relied on to criminalise homosexual acts and to steal babes from the arms of thousands of "fallen" Irish women without any regard to those babies' identities or parents.

If the marriage-equality referendum falls (I am an unapologetic 'Yes' voter), it will fall not because Ireland is a homophobic country. If it falls, it will fall because of a sustained political failure to respond to the changing nature of the Irish family in all its forms. And if it falls, it will be because of the failure by successive governments to legislate for advances in assisted human reproductive technologies, used in the main by heterosexual couples because we can't adopt babies from women hidden behind high walls anymore.

We are not being asked to vote on IVF - which has given birth to more than 6,000 babies in Ireland - or surrogacy, which has flourished with the tacit yet express approval of the Government. These are difficult moral, legal scientific and ethical issues that have to be confronted, regardless of whether the prospective parents are straight or gay.

Saccharine words such as "complementarity" and "nature" cannot sweeten the bitter pill of inequality that we are being told to suck up. Because if we value children - if we truly value them - we don't tell them they are disordered, unnatural or second-class citizens.

It is our job to make sure they're not at the back of the bus.

Irish Independent

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