THE Constitutional Convention has voted in favour of amending the Constitution to allow same-sex marriage by a 79pc majority. The controversial issue of same-sex parenting in Ireland is central to the same-sex marriage debate.
In many ways, it also raises the related issue of joint adoption by same-sex couples, something that is currently prohibited in Ireland. While Irish law does not permit joint adoption by same-sex couples, the reality is that a single gay or lesbian person can adopt. This is reflective of traditional societal beliefs regarding homosexuality, lest we forget that homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993.
Many types of family constellations exist within contemporary Irish society including same-sex couples or civil partners with children. Indeed, irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with same-sex couples having families, the point is that this family structure has existed for generations and is now part of what is becoming an increasingly diverse Irish society. This is not only an equality and civil-rights issue for adults.
More importantly, it is about recognising and protecting the rights of children who grow up in less traditional family forms. It is particularly important to address this issue in light of the recent constitutional referendum on children's rights.
There are various perspectives on whether or not same-sex parenting is in the best interests of children. For example, some are of the opinion that same-sex families cause children harm. Others have argued that there is a higher probability that children who are brought up within a family where the parents are of a homosexual orientation, are more likely to be homosexual themselves.
Moreover, it has been argued that these children are more emotionally vulnerable. Some believe that same-sex couples are less fit to be parents than heterosexual couples or that it is not in the child's best interest to be raised by LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – parents.
Despite these arguments, much of the psychological research which has been carried out to date fails to support any of these claims.
In fact, as recent as 2010, a report entitled Voices of Children sought the views of Irish children growing up with LGBT parents. This report not only confirms the findings of existing research in this area, but it includes the voices of children of LGBT parents who have thrived within positive and loving families.
These young people highlighted the importance of growing up with two loving parents irrespective of their parents' sexual orientation. They also expressed frustration at the lack of legal recognition given to their family status.
An international study undertaken in 2009, found there were no significant differences between heterosexual and homosexual parents.
While the study acknowledged that the emotional and behavioural issues of children can provide challenges for adoptive parents, sexual orientation does not impact on their ability to address those challenges.
This confirms earlier data which found that children of lesbian adoptive parents do not differ from other children in relation to emotional adjustment, sexual preference, stigmatisation, gender-role behaviour, behavioural adjustment, gender identity or cognitive functioning.
It remains to be seen whether Ireland will join the seven European countries that allow same-sex marriage.
Nonetheless, irrespective of whether Ireland facilitates same-sex marriage or not, legal provision should be made to allow same-sex couples adopt jointly, similar to the position in the UK since 2005.
The recommendations emanating from the constitutional convention are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the issue of sex-marriage/parenting is concerned. However, we must not let the debate be led by arguments grounded in homophobia and heterosexual bias that regards the traditional nuclear family as the gold standard of parenting.
The reality is that children being brought up by same-sex couples are not treated or loved any less by their parents, but they are currently treated differently by the Irish State through its failure to recognise these alternative family structures. If we are to take the issue of children's rights seriously, then as a society we need to re-evaluate how we think about contemporary Irish families.
Dr Aisling Parkes is a lecturer in law and Dr Simone McCaughren is a lecturer in applied social studies, UCC