It occurred to me during the week that, for the past 20 years, I may have been wrong about what is happening in family law. I realise this is a pretty dramatic thing to concede at this stage of the game: what set me thinking like this was a family law judgement in a UK case last week, widely reported in the news here, about a so-called surrogate mother who lost custody of her 15 month-old baby girl to the father and his gay lover.
The mother claimed the child, who was conceived after an insemination process at the gay couple's home, was always going to be brought up by her, with the father's involvement. She denied the couple's claim that she had entered into a surrogacy agreement with them, but the judge refused to believe her, accusing her of seeking to use the father as a sperm donor. Ms Justice Alison Russell - who last year became the first UK High Court judge to insist on being addressed as "Ms" - declared the mother "homophobic" because she has tried to "smear" the father by criticising the gay lifestyle.
She also criticised the mother for breastfeeding her child to "frustrate contact" between father and child and manipulate the court into supporting her custody claim.
The judge declared that, although the child had "come to no harm" in the care of her mother, it would be in "the best interests" of the child to be brought up by the father and his male lover. The mother is now subject to a gagging order which forbids her to give her side of the story, or to assist anyone seeking information about the case.
This is a glimpse of the future - for us in Ireland also, if we vote Yes to the so-called "marriage equality" amendment in 12 days' time. In this case, we can observe the true line of the intention behind this amendment: to create a new dispensation for family life whereby legal parenthood will become disconnected from biology and the natural procreative process involving a male and female. This is the case being advanced by First Families First, the group I launched on May 1 with two friends, Kathy Sinnott and Gerry Fahey, to oppose the "marriage equality" amendment in its present form.
If you wish to understand more fully the direction we are being nudged in, I cannot do better than quote a recent document produced by the "children's charity" Unicef, which recently stressed that its use of the term "parent" now refers to a child's "caregiver" and is not limited to biological or legal parents - "or, indeed, even to parents". The word "family", likewise, is to be used to refer to "the most significant intimate group, which can be defined either by kinship, marriage, adoption or choice".
Choice? But whose choice? Not the people who beget a child, but rather the state authorities who will dispense "parenthood" in the manner of fuel vouchers.
I admit that, two decades ago when I first began writing about these topics, I didn't see this coming. For a long time, I saw the pattern of discrimination against fathers as simply an expression of deep prejudice and bias. I analysed the extensive brutalisation and ostracisation of fathers as problematic largely on the grounds of injustice. I have, more recently, come to realise that I was observing the early stages of a sinister wave of social engineering, now rapidly moving up through the gears.
During the week, one of those valiant keyboard warriors who remain persistently on my case on account of my failure to promote "the most important human right of our generation" [gay marriage] sent me a link to an Irish Times report of the UK surrogacy case. The headline on the report was: "Surrogate mother 'played victim' to try keep child from gay father", and the link was accompanied by a demand to know what I had "to say" about this shocking injustice against a father. I responded that it was "the first time in 25 years that I've seen a pro-father headline in The Irish Times." Indeed, it struck me that, had I put such a spin on a case involving any woman and any straight man, I would have been denounced as a misogynist by Fintan O'Toole.
By the same token, the idea of any kind of mother being dispossessed of her child to favour a straight father is absolutely unthinkable in either the Irish or UK family law jurisdictions. The idea of a judge attacking a woman for breastfeeding her own child represents an unprecedented expression of something most people will find utterly counter-intuitive.
Gradually over the past 20 years I've come to the conclusion that the attacks on fatherhood, which I've been resisting for two-thirds of my life as a professional journalist, were really not down to simple bias, but represented the advance march of an ideology we now observe entering its full stride. The point was not hatred of fathers but the early stages of a concerted attack on normative ideas of family.
By marginalising fathers, the system was creating a culture of vulnerable mothers, highly dependent on State largesse, who would in turn become vulnerable to the re-constructive energies of the regime. The last thing the ideologues wanted was the emergence of a cooperative post-divorce version of the fractured family: fathers and mothers, albeit living separately, raising their children in relative harmony. That's why governments have resisted a serious, legally recognised mediation option for family disputes and refused point-blank to permit any enhanced rights for unmarried fathers while promoting far more tenuous "family rights" claims from other quarters.
What is really happening is the reinvention of family not to favour either women or men but to promote new and radical models of family as remote as, so to speak, conceivable from the normative, natural model. And the more remote, the more likely to be preferred. This is the meaning of this week's UK "surrogacy" judgement, which will become a portent of the future of Irish family law if the "marriage equality" amendment is allowed to pass in its present form. Favoured by this new dispensation will be couples who serve to build a new pattern of what, adopting the UNICEF definitions, might be called post-parent parenting.
So, I was wrong in seeing pure pro-mother bias. Sure, single mothers were preferred to either single fathers or unmarried parents living together with their children or living separately and cooperating in rearing their children. But this was just an early symptom of a dispensation that, as this weeks "surrogacy" case demonstrates, will soon regard gay couples (male or female) as better than lone mothers or lone fathers, with biology an irrelevant factor. Whereas in the past, when a mother and a father came into conflict, the mantra of the legal system was "mother first", it is now a case of "new families first". This is why, in launching a late initiative against the proposed "marriage equality" amendment, we have called our group First Families First - precisely to combat this new tendency.
Last week's UK case reminds me of one that hit the headlines here a few years ago, involving a friend of mine, a gay man who had naively entered a surrogacy arrangement with two lesbians, one of whom gave birth to his child. The man had volunteered to be a "sperm-donor" in the conception of the child, who was to be brought up by the lesbian couple with the father's role defined as akin to a "visiting uncle". The father went along with this scheme until after his son was born and he realised that being a "visiting uncle" would not be enough to satisfy the feelings and desires he felt welling up inside him.
Seeing this change in him, the lesbian couple increasingly sought to push him out of his son's life and the case ended up before the courts. The father lost in the High Court - in a judgement exhibiting strikingly similar logic to that of Ms Justice Russell - but in the Supreme Court he achieved a judgement, firmly rooted in the Irish Constitution, which recognised his role as natural father of his son, and which stands as the Irish courts' most ringing acknowledgement of the importance of biological fatherhood.
The Supreme Court completely overturned the High Court finding that the father has misled the lesbian couple as to the role he intended to play in his son's life. The court found it persuasive that, following the birth of his child, the man had been overcome by emotions he had not anticipated. In a quite beautiful passage of his judgement, Mr Justice Murray made lengthy reference to this issue, and offered an unprecedented reflection on the emotional life of the father, which needed, he said, to be considered before the issue of the prior agreement could be evaluated.
"The fact is," he stated, "that a person in the position of [the father], when faced after birth with the reality of a child, a person, who is his son or daughter, even if biologically in the sense of the facts of this case, may, quite forseeably, experience strong natural feelings of parental empathy and identity which may overcome previous perceptions of the relationship between father and child arrived at in the more abstract situation before the child was even conceived."
In terms of the usually father-hostile climate of Irish family courts, this was sensational stuff, equating as it did the emotions of the father to the putative emotions of a mother on holding her own child. Unfortunately, as well as being the first such judgement, it may also be the last. If the "marriage equality" amendment is passed on Friday week, the biological claims not just of single fathers, but also divorced fathers, single mothers, unmarried parents of both sexes, grandparents, brothers, sisters and every other form of flesh and blood relative will be swept away in a clamour for newness.
This is what a 'Yes' will mean. It will not be a 'Yes' to "equality", but the opposite. It will not be a cost-free "compassionate" gesture. It will not represent any kind of progress. Instead, it will be the end of family life as we currently know it and take for granted.