Senator launches ‘Right to love’ Bill for people with intellectual disabilities

Zappone says ‘chilling effect’ of existing laws means many are afraid to form relationships

Senator Katherine Zappone: “I’ve been deeply touched by the rightful anger of people with disabilities who say their love is criminalised.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The law which criminalises the sexual activity of people with intellectual disabilities should be replaced with new “right to love” legislation which respects their human rights.

That was the message at the launch of a Bill yesterday by Senator Katherine Zappone which seeks to eliminate discrimination against people with mental impairments under existing sexual offences legislation.

At present, people with intellectual disabilities may face criminal action for having sexual relations, unless they are married to one another.

While no known prosecutions have been taken under this 1993 Criminal Law (Sexual offences) Act, Senator Zappone said the “chilling effect” of this law meant many were fearful of forming relationships.


In addition, it meant service providers and families were reluctant to give people with disabilities the freedom to have intimate contact, while sexual education has been badly neglected.

“These obstacles are making people’s lives difficult, miserable and unhappy when there are already enough challenges to find happiness and well-being,” Ms Zappone said.

Protection from abuse

Her new Bill seeks to provide protection from abuse by introducing an offence of abuse of a position of dependence and trust for sexual purposes.

She said this was intended to provide more appropriate protection against abuse which could apply to all individuals who may be in a position of dependence, including persons with disabilities.

“This Bill was created in response to a call to action by self advocates and disabled people’s organisations,” Ms Zappone said.

“I’ve been deeply touched by the rightful anger of people with disabilities who say their love is criminalised and who want to make choices for themselves.”

The Bill was in the line with international best practice and sought to address the discrimination, while providing essential protection from sexual abuse, in a manner that was respectful of their human rights.

‘Given the chance’

One couple, Orla Belton (35) and Brendan O’Reilly (28)

– who have mild learning disabilities, or extra support needs – said existing laws meant many people have not taken their relationship seriously.

“People told us we’d never be able to manage or have our own apartment,” Ms Belton said.

“But we do. We’ve been living together for a few years and do lots of stuff ourselves. And it’s the best thing we ever did. We should be given the chance. We’re well able to have relationships ourselves.”

The couple are planning to marry next summer.

The proposed legislation also aims to reform the definition of consent to respect the sexual agency of all people involved, while criminalising sexual acts that are not agreed upon or understood by all parties.

It was researched by experts including Dr Eilionóir Flynn and Anna Arstein-Kerslake of NUI Galway's Centre for Disability Law and Policy, along with Dr Brian Hunt in consultation with self advocates.

‘Wrong and unjust’

Ms Zappone said the proposed

Bill had met with a positive response from Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and her officials, but called on individuals and civil society organisations to make their voices heard.

“What really makes the Government move is if people express their outrage at what is wrong and unjust,” she said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent