Sometimes an issue compels me to get up from the comfort of the pundit’s armchair and get into the campaign arena. Marriage equality is such an issue and that is why, over the Easter break, I began volunteering time to help with Yes Equality, the umbrella organisation for the Yes campaign.
We always expected that the No campaign would go negative and go nasty at some stage before May 22nd. This week, however, they erected posters that suggest they are prepared to go nasty early.
These No posters are desperate in both senses of the word. They have a picture of a toddler under a bold headline about surrogacy. They are also dishonest and are part of a systematic effort by the No side to divert the debate about this referendum away from the central issue of extending the freedom to marry to gay and lesbian couples.
The Irish are a generous and fair people. When offered the opportunity to give full constitutional equality to gay men and lesbian women and their families the overwhelming majority of Irish voters are disposed towards so doing.
That is why, in order to defeat this equality, the No campaign has to make this referendum debate about something else. They are desperate to make surrogacy that something else.
They know it is an issue that discomfits many voters and they cynically seek to exploit that discomfort and attach it to the concept of same-sex marriage. They do so notwithstanding the fact that surrogacy, like all forms of assisted human reproduction, is largely availed of by heterosexual couples, who for medical reasons are unable to have children.
The No posters have certainly had an impact and have quickly gained traction as a talking point. However, deploying such crude messaging so early may prove counterproductive for the No side.
They have erred in leaving so much time for their argument to be countered. Within hours some of the country's leading constitutional experts came out to rubbish the suggestion that the referendum will have an impact on our surrogacy laws. On Tuesday, for example, Conor O'Mahony, constitutional law lecturer in UCC, posted a comprehensive blog setting out how the claims made by No campaigners regarding the legal impact of the referendum result on the area of assisted human reproduction (AHR) were misleading. The outcome of the referendum, O'Mahony concludes, "will have no impact in this area. The Oireachtas will remain free to regulate AHR as it sees fit."
Surrogacy needs to be regulated and that will be done on a legislative basis. It will, as a matter of law, have to be available to couples irrespective of whether they are married or not and irrespective of whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex couples. That will be case whether this referendum is passed or defeated on May 22nd.
Many children, like the notional one depicted on the No poster, are already being born with the assistance of surrogacy. That will also continue to be the case irrespective of whether this referendum is passed or defeated.
What a Yes vote in this referendum will mean is that children reared by same-sex couples will enjoy the same constitutional status and equality as other children. The suggestion that these children should be discriminated against and other families preferred is precisely what this referendum is designed to eliminate.
This surrogacy poster, together with another poster trumpeting that “every child deserves a father and a mother” reinforces the central messaging from the No campaign that two biological parents of opposite sex are the ideal form of family. They have repeatedly implied that other families are therefore less deserving. In so doing they have not only annoyed thousands of same-sex households but also angered the hundreds of thousands of households headed by single parents.
Two biological parents
Most children in Ireland are reared by two biological parents. That is the case now and will be the case after the referendum, whatever the outcome. Many other children are reared in different types of households. Most parents, irrespective of their number or gender, enjoy the support of extended families and communities.
The quality of parenting in our complicated world is determined by caring skills and capacity for love and not by the number, gender, age or sexual orientation of parents. It is nonsense to suggest that, “all else being equal”, children are better reared in one form of household over another. Each and every family situation is distinct. Our laws and our Constitution should support and recognise these different realities and do so equally.
The other reason these No posters may prove counterproductive is because they have provoked Yes supporters out of their complacency. Online donations to fund Yes posters and enquiries to the Yes campaign from those volunteering to canvass have soared in the days since these No posters went up.
To that extent at least they are a welcome development in this campaign.