Constitution must reflect reality of life for women

Thu, Nov 29, 2012, 00:00

The tragedy of Savita Halappanavar has revived the abortion debate and drawn the attention of a whole new generation of women to what the Constitution actually says about them and their bodies.

Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter demonstrated how some women are not equal to men under the Constitution in a frank and thoughtful speech to the Dáil this week.

“It can truly be said that the right of pregnant women to have their health protected is, under our constitutional framework, a qualified right . . . This is a republic in which we proclaim the equality of all citizens but it is a reality that some citizens are more equal than others,” he said. The Minister noted there was no impediment to men seeking and obtaining any required medical intervention to protect not only their lives but also their health and quality of life.

The curious should look beyond the contentious article 40, which protects the right to life of the unborn with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother. The article that follows contains an antiquated clause on mothers’ “duties in the home” and demonstrates how the Constitution lets women down on a wider scale.

Although rights enshrined for all citizens naturally apply to women, the text appears to view women primarily as mothers. Men cannot carry or give birth to children, of course, and the Constitution contains no references to fathers (save for a mention in the preamble of ancestral fathers who were sustained “through centuries of trial” by Jesus Christ).

The document effectively pays a tender tribute to the much-loved “Irish mammy” when it says “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”.

But it goes on to pledge that the State “shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

Tell that to the young “negative equity” couples dropping their child at a creche at some ungodly hour of the morning as they head to work. The text fails to reflect modern life for many. Not only are lots of mothers “obliged by economic necessity” to spend long periods working outside their homes, with associated guilt in some cases, but increasing numbers of men are becoming “stay-at-home dads”. Some men are looking after children at home during traditional office hours through choice or because their partner’s earning power is greater, but redundancy has been a key factor in recent times.

Constitutional convention

The much-maligned constitutional convention, which meets for the first time on Saturday, has been asked to consider how the clause on women in the home might be amended as part of a wider series of potential constitutional reforms.

The convention has been criticised for its limited and uninspiring remit. It has been asked to prioritise whether the voting age should be reduced to 17 and the president’s term from seven years to five. As has been noted elsewhere, these are hardly weighty matters in the grand scheme of things, yet they must be reported on within two months. But the opportunity to contribute towards the evolution of the Constitution to increase its relevance and reflect important changes in Irish family life within 12 months should not be downgraded by negative comment.

The convention has also been criticised because its 66 citizen members will be allowed to remain anonymous. What we do know about the “faceless 66” is that half of them will be women.

Unfortunately the gender balance on the convention will be skewed by those members who are politicians. Individual parties have made a reasonable attempt to put forward women members, but fewer than half of the 33 parliamentarians from the Republic and Northern Ireland will be women.

Ironically, the convention is also tasked with reporting to Government on methods of encouraging greater participation of women in public life. The recently published Ipsos MRBI 50th anniversary poll revealed a two-to-one split in favour of removing the outdated reference to the position of women in the home. Interestingly, there was no gender difference in the responses, with men just as likely as women to support a removal.

But the most striking figure thrown up by the poll was the number of people with no opinion (40 per cent) on whether the clause should be deleted. Academic experts have suggested this may have been because respondents were not aware of what the Constitution actually says.

If this is the case, women would be well advised to investigate the document that defines our nation. Reactions may vary from humour to horror.

Unnecessary tinkering with the Constitution would be ill-advised and dangerous for the Government when the electorate is clearly not in the mood to do what it is told. The Constitution should be a living, breathing document, however, reflecting Ireland as she is today. Let us not be too precious about the text drawn up by the founding fathers.

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