Family Relationships Bill is welcome and long overdue

Ireland should not allow commercial surrogacy exploit women from developing countries


The Child and Family Relationships Bill, when enacted, will comprehensively reform the law relating to families and remove the many anomalies concerning the legal status of children in different kinds of families. Many of the proposals are uncontroversial, and have been long discussed. These include the automatic right to guardianship of unmarried fathers who have had a relationship with the mother up to and after the birth of the child and enhanced rights for grandparents of access to children where parental relationships have broken down. The Bill also proposes measures to deal with situations where estranged parents obstruct contact between their child and the other parent, providing sanctions other than jailing the obstructing parent for contempt of court. The Bill will also provide for the partner or spouse of a child’s parent, who is playing a practical role in caring for that child, to have guardianship rights.

There has been more debate about the proposal that cohabiting couples and civil partners will be eligible to adopt children. At the moment a single person is eligible to adopt, and this has created an anomaly where he or she may be rearing a child within a relationship, but the partner has no parental rights and, if the parent dies or they separate, will legally be a stranger to the child. All adoption decisions will, of course, continue to be based on the best interests of the child and potential adopters will face the same rigorous procedures as before.

Other controversial proposals include those relating to children born through assisted human reproduction. While all such medical procedures are to be regulated in a separate Bill from the Minister for Health, the Child and Family Relationships Bill seeks to deal with some of the problems arising from such procedures. It proposes that where a child is conceived from donor sperm, with the partner’s consent, the mother’s partner can become the child’s legal parent.

The Minister for Health is proposing to close the door to some of the more controversial aspects of assisted human reproduction. There can be no anonymous sperm donation and a child thus conceived will be able to trace its genetic identity. There is also a ban on commercial surrogacy. Disturbing evidence has emerged showing how in some instances women from developing countries or impoverished communities are paid to carry other people’s children in circumstances where scant attention is paid to their dignity and rights. It is right that our laws will not facilitate this.

All these measures show a welcome determination to tackle the many gaps between our present law and the lived experiences of Irish families. Some of them raise important ethical and policy questions, which must be fully discussed. Overall, this Bill is welcome and long overdue.