Liz Dunphy explores current thinking on the concept of family and talks to an eminent researcher, a donor-conceived adult and a constitutional expert on the current family values.
Two loving parents are raising their children — a teenage boy and a girl — in Co Wexford. One parent loves to cook, and nourish and be at home, the other works outside the home and is spontaneous and always encourages the family to try something new.
Holidays have been shared cycling around quaint Cape Cod villages in the US sunshine, and weekends are for big family brunches on Sundays. They carve pumpkins at Halloween, and look forward to hanging stockings at Christmas. They laugh, tease, play, joke and discipline when necessary.
This family must surely fulfill even the most demanding and romantic notions about what constitutes an ideal family. And both parents are men.
The Marriage Equality Referendum on May 22 has raised questions about what it is to be a family and which families deserve the full protection of Irish law.
Fifteen-year-old Safia O’Gorman influenced that debate when she wrote an inspiring public letter about how very ideal her own family is, in reaction to messages communicated by the No campaign in the Marriage Equality Referendum, which claimed that a child needs a mother and a father.
Safia lives in Wexford with her brother Sean, her dad Colm O’Gorman (founder of One in Four a charity that supports victims of sexual abuse; he is also the Executive Director of Amnesty International in Ireland, a former Senator, a happy cook and home-maker) and her other dad , Paul Fyffe (the spontaneous one).
Safia’s mother requested that Colm and Paul took guardianship of her children when she received a terminal medical diagnosis. She clearly chose her children’s guardians wisely as they have raised remarkable young adults in a complex contemporary world where teenagers have endless paths to navigate before they can securely find their own place.
And despite no genetic link, Safia already appears to emulate some of the characteristics that make her parents great; courage, eloquence and a sense of un-blinkered justice.
“I had heard a lot of negativity in the media about gay marriage, and how two people of the same sex shouldn’t be allowed to raise children. It felt like they were saying that there was something wrong with my family which made me really angry and I wanted to share my opinion,” says Safia on her motivation for writing the letter about her family which was widely reported by the media in recent weeks.
“I love my dads. People need to see that marriage equality is important and that gay people raising families together is no different from heterosexual couples. If a child is loved and cared for and has the support they need, then I think that that is a perfect family.
“I’ve never met a homophobic child or teenager, only grown-ups sometimes disagree with it. Sean and I were giving out Yes Equality badges at school, and now every second person you meet wears one,” says Safia.
Her dad Colm O’Gorman agrees: “Families need lots of support, love, commitment, patience and a fair bit of humour. And in reality the things that really determine the kinds of outcomes that children have are quite frankly things like security, and socioeconomic status. Fundamentally families need to be secure. Socioeconomically, legally, emotionally and psychologically.”
“If the referendum is passed it will mean that my marriage and our family have legal recognition and have all of the protection that other people’s marriages have. It will mean something to all of us. I’m hugely excited that our grandkids will be born into a country in which they are guaranteed equality before the law, regardless of the gender of the person they grow up to love as adults,” says O’Gorman
And O’Gorman as always, has a point. Love should surely be the motivating and binding force that is respected and encouraged in relationships, as opposed to someone’s biological sex.
Contemporary research currently indicates that environmental factors are at least as important in shaping a person’s development as genetics.
And gender is something that is at least partially engineered by society, which likes to tidy things away into neat little boxes that life just cannot be contained within.
And gendered roles and stereotypes are now, hopefully, breaking free from those boxes, allowing men more input into parenting, and women more access to the workforce, to give two blunt examples of positively shifting gender norms.
Dolce and Gabbana controversially labelled the living, breathing, laughing, crying children conceived through assisted human reproduction as ‘synthetic’. The designer duo, who also happen to be gay, had to apologise publicly following a huge public outcry anda vehement lashing from Sir Elton John, through the press and social media with all the vigour that you would expect from a protective parent.
And a parent is indeed how an eminent authority on the subject would describe him. Professor Susan Golombok is Professor of Family Research at Cambridge University, and she published a book in March called Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms.
Her study suggests that, as the Beatle’s song immortally proclaimed, ‘all you need is love’. Golumbok even found that children born into less conventional families are often more stable, happy and successful than many from more conventional backgrounds.
“It used to be thought that the traditional family with married heterosexual parents and their genetically related children is the best environment in which to raise children,” says Golombok.
“Research on new family forms conducted over the past 40 years has shown that this is not the case. Children flourish in warm, supportive families whatever their structure. And they are at risk from psychological problems in hostile, unsupportive families whatever their structure. Today families come in all shapes and sizes and there is no such thing as an ideal family.
“My research found that the quality of family relationships is more important for children’s psychological wellbeing than is family structure, ie the number, gender, sexual orientation and genetic relatedness of parents,” says Golombok.
“There is a large body of research showing that parental warmth, sensitivity, positive interaction, open communication and moderate levels of discipline and control, all contribute to children’s psychological wellbeing.
“And children who were donor conceived or adopted are very wanted children, who are much-loved by their parents. It is important to counter negative attitudes towards children in new family forms as the difficulties that children in such families face come from outside their family rather than from within it,” says Golombok.
Dr Joanna Rose was conceived through assisted human reproduction. She won a legal battle in the UK which established a right for donor conceived children to access information on their genetic parents. She is on the advisory committee of Mothers and Fathers Matter, a group that has campaigned for a No vote in the referendum.
Rose takes issue with Golombok’s research: “Demoting a genetic parent to a donor is a social decision by a group of people; the child does not make that decision.
“Society assumes that people want their own genetic children. But in assisted human reproduction, the concept that the child would want their own genetic parents is lost and that is an inequality,” says Rose. “What matters to me is intergenerational consistency. It is an injustice to the child to break that.”
Rose found little support when she looked for answers on her genetic identity. “People were very unwilling to help. I met with deafness, indifference and disrespect from all the institutions. It was a really hard legal fight with the Department of Health and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HSEA) for 7 years to establish any right for donor-conceived offspring to access information on their genetic identity,” says Rose.
“People need to be able to access their medical history at least. I know lots of people who have gone back to the clinic asking for records which were all ‘destroyed in an office fire’. We’ve all heard it,” she says.
“It has been a social experiment and at least if people in authority were responsive and willing to help, we could all move forward. But no one wants to know because it is a massive, hugely lucrative industry. They are doing something that violates a child’s right to identity and getting rich on it.”
Rose was told that she was donor-conceived when she was 8.
“I was aware that it was emotionally loaded and I felt like I had to protect my parents. So it was something that I didn’t have the support and the emotional freedom to explore for a long time.
“Donor-conceived offspring are often put under pressure to be grateful to be alive. It’s really horrible. Awful kinds of questions are put to donor offspring. There’s an external expectation and a deafening pressure on these people to say that they feel very much loved. There is a pressure to protect the parents.”
Rose is clear that her concerns about donor conception are the same for heterosexual and same-sex couples.
“People who are gay have had a very hard time, they have had to fight for their rights, and I support that. I just don’t think anyone has the right to found a family outside of their genetic makeup,” she asserts.
"And she is concerned that a Yes vote in the referendum will increase the likelihood of people forming families through assisted human reproduction.
Anna Shephard, speaking on behalf of Mother and Fathers Matter, agrees with Rose that assisted human reproduction should not be encouraged to build new family relationships in Ireland.
“It becomes child production rather than pro-creation, and you are making a child motherless or fatherless by design,” says Shephard.
“We should not need to redefine marriage to affirm gay love. Marriage is the foundation of family and to redefine marriage just to tell same-sex couples that we love and value them, is wrong.
“We have civil partnership, and the reality is that there is a difference between a heterosexual couple who can bring children into the world through their union and same-sex couples who naturally cannot.
“It’s just the way nature does it. And to remove this distinction and change the constitution is really saying that mothers and fathers don’t matter anymore. It’s overriding nature.
“Cases like adoption are different, because you are responding to a child’s need, not to an adult’s wish. And while I absolutely believe that same-sex couple’s love should be affirmed, I do not think that it should be done at the expense of children,” says Shephard.
Dr. Conor O’Mahony is an authority on constitutional law at UCC, and he says that the proposed amendment will not affect existing families in any way if it is passed.
“The amendment would extend legal recognition as a “family” to same-sex couples who marry, and to any children they are caring for. Such families would then be able to benefit from the legal and constitutional protections extended to all marital families.
“It is important to stress that the rights that would be extended to same-sex married couples do not include a constitutional right to access donor-assisted human reproduction or surrogacy services.
“The Constitution does not include such a right and the courts have not recognised such a right for opposite-sex married couples. Therefore a Yes vote will not extend this right to same-sex married couples,” says O’Mahony.
And Colm O’Gorman sees the referendum in another way too:
“We have been a brutalised society, and we have also been quite brutal to each other. We’ve mistreated families through orphanages and mother and baby homes; psychiatric institutions; poverty, marginalisation, and forced immigration.
“And all for an incredibly vicious demand to conform to an impossible, cruel, unloving ideal that was so far from ideal. And I believe that we’re at a tipping point; we’ve faced so much of that painful past as a country, and I think that now liberates us to be who we are.”
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