Saturday 3 December 2016

Road to a Yes vote was via democracy red in tooth and claw

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed
Thousands of people celebrate in Dublin Castle Square as the result of the referendum is relayed

Political scientists, historians, ethicists, sociologists and sexperts (amongst others) will spend years parsing the reasons why Ireland sung and danced its way into the history books last Saturday night.

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We are not the first country in the world to introduce marriage equality. But what makes our new marriage laws so special is that we were the first country in the world to put the issue directly to citizens by popular vote, rather than extending marriage to same-sex couples through parliament.

The stunning turnout for the marriage equality referendum (60.5pc) combined with the volume of No votes (734,300 or 38pc) makes a mockery of the complaints in some quarters that the voices of opponents of same-sex marriage - granted 50pc of the requisite airtime - were somehow silenced.

Those voices were heard and those votes were counted. They just happened, in the end, to be outnumbered - by almost 2:1 - by those in support of marriage equality.

That's hardly censorship or oppression. Rather, it is democracy red in tooth and claw and something that we should be grateful for after decades of apathy, bordering on contempt, towards the political class and their ways of doing business.

Indeed, it was the abdication of duty by successive governments - this Coalition included - that led to the undercurrent of confusion which informed much of the marriage equality debate. That unforgiveable abdication was the failure to regulate assisted human reproduction, including IVF and surrogacy, technologies used - in the main - by heterosexual couples.

When our now equal gay citizens appealed to have their unions and families recognised by the Constitution, they faced not only the task of eliminating still underlying prejudices about their sexual orientation.

They were also hit, full force, with the eternal, fiery blowback of the combustion engine that is the Eighth Amendment. When the pro-life amendment was passed in 1983, the unborn was given equal rights to that of the mother. But the unborn was not defined, despite warnings at the time that the new phrase required definition.

In 1996, the Constitution Review Group (CRG) again called for clarity as to the definition of the unborn. The CRG said a definition was vital to clarify whether Article 40.3.3 had an impact on assisted reproductive technologies and by implication, embryonic stem cell research.

The plea fell on deaf ears. In 2000, the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction was formed, again amid concerns about AHR technologies. The CAHR reported in 2005, again calling for clarity.

Again, legislators did nothing. When the frozen embryo case hit the Supreme Court in 2006, the court said that if the issues raised in the case were not addressed, practices which are controversial could potentially be unregulated in Ireland. And, true to form, more than 6,000 babies were born through IVF in a legal vacuum as other families relied on the international (and informal, domestic) surrogacy trade to complete their families. The lack of regulation was again criticised by the Supreme Court in the recent surrogacy case involving a married couple (heterosexual) whose twins were born to a surrogate.

There is no doubt that many who voted No in the marriage equality referendum had genuine and sincerely held concerns about the impact of a Yes vote on parenthood.

But it must be the case that the majority who voted Yes took on board those concerns (which we weren't being asked to vote on) and decided that they could not be used as a Trojan Horse to deny equality to our LGBT community.

If anything, warnings of Frankenstein families and a reproductive apocalypse served to offend many family units who do not conform to the former constitutional paradigm.

The paradigm has shifted. That doesn't mean difficult questions on parenthood do not need to be addressed, but it does mean that we can stop burdening gay families with them.

Irish Independent

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