Peals of thunder, and long and insistent flashes of forked lightning, punctuated the opening of the session. Nothing like this had ever been seen. Surely, the heavens would fall in.
Inside, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, struggled to be heard over a clamour of opposition, which seemed as if it might boil over. Cries of “demon” and “traitor” were heard.
The opposition was, it seemed, determined to prevent the minister from guillotining through this hated and controversial legislation, this bill that would fatally undermine the very fabric of Irish society.
Could democracy survive?
None of that happened. It was an ordinary, end-of-February day when the minister moved the Children and Family Relationships Bill last Tuesday. It has been debated in the Dáil for three days now, in a civilised and measured fashion. It’s decent, child-centred legislation, which will, when passed, make children more equal before the law, regardless of the means of their conception.
With a couple of exceptions, every speaker supported the bill. The critics only spoke of the speed proposed in passing the bill into law. Even they had difficulty reconciling this criticism with their equally forceful assertions that the bill was long overdue.
Outside the Dáil, however, some people believe that we are opening a fearful floodgate. One group (Mothers and Fathers Matter) sees the bill as an attempt to deprive children of the love of a mother and a father.
They say “it permits adults to use IVF, and other forms of assisted human reproduction, to deliberately deny a child a mother and a father and to deliberately cut the natural tie between children and their biological parents”.
Another group (the Iona Institute) says that the support of the Government for the bill “also explains why those of us who say the ideal for a child is to be raised by their two married, biological parents are continually rebuffed by those with the opposite view. They simply don’t believe this is the ideal and, therefore, it is a matter of total indifference to them whether a
child is raised by one man, one woman, two step-parents, a cohabiting couple, two men, two
women, or the child’s married biological parents”.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how people can make such sweeping statements and still expect to be taken seriously?
The idea that any legislature in Ireland would deliberately deprive children of the love of their parents is nonsense. The notion that it’s a matter of indifference to legislators as to how children are raised, and as to who raises them, is equally absurd.
It is truly mind-boggling to suggest that people want to bring babies into the world and then deny them parents.
The people they’re talking about are men and women who want only to be the best possible parents they can, but who cannot conceive children for medical reasons, and who need the help of modern medical technologies to have babies.
This is a tiny proportion of the children who will be covered by the legislation.
But honest legislators have to accept that children are conceived in different ways, that children live in all sorts of circumstances, that sometimes they are discriminated against or not as fully protected as they should be.
When I was a child, the American magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, was hugely popular throughout Ireland. Its most famous contributor was the artist Norman Rockwell, who illustrated the cover.
Every week, his covers would conjure up images of the idyllic American childhood.
The boys and girls were always rosy-cheeked and mischievous.
Mother, with a flowered apron, would always be getting an enormous, steaming apple pie out of the oven. Father, if he wasn’t contentedly puffing his pipe, was usually getting ready to carve the Thanksgiving turkey.
You can find all those images online, but they are no longer the way childhood, or family life, is (if it ever was).
When she was introducing the bill, Fitzgerald, described the situation as it is now: “Most children live in marital families with their biological parents, and those families enjoy the unique protection of our Constitution, with regard to marriage and the family.
However, as members of the House are also aware, from their own life experience and in their day-to-day work with constituents, a significant minority of children live in other family types.
“The 2011 census indicated that for that year, 215,300 families were headed by lone parents with children, and 44% of these parents had never been married. There were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples, with children under 15, recorded in the census.
“The number of children living in co-habiting households is rapidly increasing, rising by 41% between 2006 and 2011. These numbers indicate to us that a significant number of children live in households other than those headed by married parents.”
In the main, that’s what this bill is designed to deal with. It’s honest, straightforward legislation to give children a right to parentage in the different circumstances in which they live.
The single most important feature of the bill is its insistence that the interests of children must come first when all issues of custody, guardianship and access are being decided.
And children’s views must be heard, and taken into account, in all those situations, too.
There is one section of the bill that addresses the situation of children born through assisted human reproduction. In essence, that section says that all such children are entitled to know who their biological parents are — exactly the same as all other children.
I don’t regard myself as old. But I was a married man when our social welfare system first agreed a form of financial support for the children of unmarried mothers.I had four children when the status of illegitimacy was abolished. Right up to that time, the children of unmarried parents had been regarded as legally inferior, and had often been discriminated against.
We have needed this measure of equality and children’s rights for many years.We have needed to recognise that at least a quarter or more of our children live in families that no longer conform to previously recognised norms.
The great majority of children are loved and have stability and security in their lives — because constitutionally married parents were never (and aren’t now) a precondition for those essentials.
I honestly believe we should welcome with open arms a bill that sets out to make children equal in the eyes of the law, and that is underpinned by a commitment to listen to children.
Of one thing I’m certain. If this bill passes, life will go on. There will be no floodgates. The heavens won’t fall.
There is nothing to fear.