Same-sex relationships no substitute for marriage


A gay partnership is different, as it cannot provide a child with a mother and a father, writes Breda O'Brien.

IT MIGHT surprise people that it gives me no great joy to write about gay marriage. Understandably, someone might inquire why I am returning to it for the second week running if it is so allegedly painful.

Gay marriage is more difficult to write about than many other social and moral issues, not least because of our less than exemplary treatment of gays in the past. Ironically, abortion is easier to write about, even though I worry about adding to the hurt of the women who have had abortions. While numbers are falling, too many Irish women feel they still have to choose abortion because they see it as the least bad option in a terrible array of choices.

It is an indictment of society's failure to adequately support women undergoing crisis pregnancies that becoming pregnant can still be seen as a disaster. However, the belief I have that one day abortion will be seen as a shameful episode in medical history makes it easier to write about. Doctors, pledged to heal and save lives, instead make obscene profits from women's distress. They "solve" women's problems by ending the lives of the youngest, most vulnerable human beings.

Gay marriage is much more complex. While it would be lying to resort to the line that some of my best friends are gay, I meet gay and lesbian people regularly. Just like my heterosexual acquaintances, the majority are decent, kind, good people, getting on with their lives. Yet there is still a justified fear of encountering contempt for their orientation and their relationships. That contempt is wrong. The relationships that people enter into should be recognised and respected.

For a long time, I hesitated to write about gay marriage, simply because gay people have been so discriminated against. What then, tipped the balance for me? It is the belief that wherever possible, a child should be reared by a mother and a father, and that children have the right to know and have a relationship with their biological parents.

This problem is particularly acute in the area of sperm donation and surrogacy. Lisa Mundy, who broadly approves of assisted reproduction, writes in Everything Conceivable that parents are usually stunned by the degree to which their children long to know their biological parents, even when the children are happy in their families. In a study by the Sperm Bank of California, 80 per cent of children born to lone parents and 67 per cent of donor offspring born to heterosexual couples wanted a relationship with their biological fathers.

One could argue that adoption is fraught, as well, but surely acknowledgment of the difficulties that adopted children face should reinforce for us that we need to proceed with caution? In the case of adoption, biological parents feel unable to provide for their children, but in the case of sperm donation, or surrogacy, we are calling a child into being to fulfil a longing for a child, not to care for an existing child. In the case of assisted reproductive technology, it is often planned to exclude a parent of one gender from conception onwards. Two lesbians may make two wonderful mothers. They cannot provide a mother and father, no matter how the child entered the relationship.

Studies are often quoted about the desirability of being raised by gay parents. Ms Justice Dunne, judge in the Ann-Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone case where two women sought to have their Canadian marriage recognised, said that "until such time as there are more longitudinal studies involving much larger samples, it will be difficult to reach firm conclusions on this topic". To date, the studies are flawed in many ways, as pointed out by Prof Linda Waite in the Gilligan and Zappone case.

Incidentally, Prof Waite categorises herself as neutral on gay marriage.

Many politicians have not thought through the consequences. On Questions Answers this week, under pressure from David Quinn, Mary Harney admitted that she believes children have the right to a mother and father. Yet her last contribution on the topic was that every country that has introduced gay marriage has started with civil partnership. These two positions are hard to reconcile.

Brian Cowen believes that this will not dilute the meaning of marriage. One wonders what he thinks would, if this doesn't? Of course marriage is not just about children, but about love, sexual attraction, and commitment. Yet this proposed Bill is yet another step towards removing from marriage the defining paradigm of mother, father and child. It begins to move it entirely towards the adult sexual relationship model, where the needs of adults dominate.

Marriage is already under assault in every way from heterosexuals. Do we wish to redefine it in an even more radical way?

Fianna Fáil had an excellent discussion on marriage recently. Twenty-six people signed a motion supporting traditional marriage, and, given that they decided not to approach Ministers or Ministers of State to sign, this was a sizeable chunk of the remainder of the parliamentary party. The vast majority present supported the spirit of the motion. Yet it needs to move beyond words.

Virtually every policy strengthens the "family diversity" model, while no equivalent effort is put into supporting heterosexual marriage. The Government has stood by as property prices crippled young married people and forced them into exhausting commuting. They now stand passively by as people struggle to repay 100 per cent mortgages. This Government has continued to implement tax individualisation, which now penalises some single-income marriages to the tune of €6,270 a year.

If there is broad agreement that opposite sex marriage is a building block of society, where exactly has the Government supported this in a practical way, other than funding counselling for marriages in trouble?

Gay people deserve rights and recognition. However, a same-sex relationship cannot provide a child with a mother and a father. This makes it profoundly different to marriage. Therefore, it is not discriminatory to treat same-sex relationships differently.

It is never pleasant to take a stance like this, and it must be a thousand times less pleasant to be the person who is told that important values like equality must take second place to the common good. I would prefer if the conflict could be wished away, but it can't.