Tanya Ward: ‘Marriage equality in no way undermines the rights of children’
‘A child’s wellbeing doesn’t depend on the type of family they grow up in’
‘The reality is that the vast majority of children are raised by their biological parents and this will not change with a Yes vote. But the concept of parentage is much broader than biology.’ Photograph: Getty Images
With only a few days to the referendum, voters are still being told that marriage equality will harm children. As a children’s rights campaigner, I take these claims very seriously. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t.
The truth is they are baseless. Marriage equality in no way undermines the rights of children. If it did then why would so many children and youth organisations have called for a Yes vote? The Children’s Rights Alliance, Barnardos, the ISPCC, the National Youth Council of Ireland and many others have endorsed the campaign of BeLonG To (the national organisation for LGBT young people) for a Yes vote. The BeLonG To Yes campaign has provided a voice to parents and young people across Ireland who believe passionately in equality for families.
The No camp has made many claims about the impact of this referendum on children but they are just not true.
We are told that children have a right to their biological mother and father and that a Yes vote will interfere with this right. However, the reality is that the vast majority of children are raised by their biological parents and this will not change with a Yes vote. But the concept of parentage is much broader than biology. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child “as far as possible” has “the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents”. That could be their mother and father or it could be a step-parent, an aunt, a grandparent or any person acting in a day-to-day parenting role. The social aspect of parenting is important.
We are told that by voting Yes a father may lose his rights to his child if the mother goes onto to marry a woman and they become a family under the Constitution. This is simply bogus. An unmarried father’s right to have a relationship with his child cannot be extinguished by the subsequent marriage of the child’s mother. The constitutional protection granted to a family consisting of a married couple with children only extends to children who are born of that marriage or who are adopted. And adoption will not be permitted in circumstances where the father is in the picture.
We are told that by voting Yes we will not be able to give preference to mothers and fathers in our laws on adoption, assisted human reproduction (AHR) and surrogacy.
It is true that by extending civil marriage to same-sex couples it will be difficult for the Oireachtas to discriminate between opposite-sex and same-sex couples. But isn’t that the point of the referendum? A child’s wellbeing doesn’t depend on the type of family they grow up in. The quality of parenting, familial stability and financial income are what’s vital.
And it has to be said that many experts, including the Chair of the Adoption Authority, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, have confirmed that our adoption laws will not change because of the referendum. Dr Shannon is the best person to offer a view on this as he and the Adoption Authority have responsibility for granting the majority of the adoptions in this country. Indeed, his view was recently endorsed by the Chair of the Referendum Commission, Justice Kevin Cross. There is no right to adopt. Married couples and single people have been eligible to adopt regardless of their sexual orientation for many years. Cohabiting couples and civil partners can now also apply to be assessed for adoption. Adoptions have been and will continue to be based on the best interests of the child and the capacity of the prospective adopters to parent a child up to the age of 18 years.
We are also told that AHR will have to be provided for same-sex couples “demanding” children. And yet, the whole argument fails to recognise the fact that, in the main, most people using these services are married straight couples dealing with the pain of infertility.
Let’s not forget about surrogacy – the biggest red herring of them all. There are no specific constitutional provisions on surrogacy. There is no formal legal right to access surrogacy services. The independent chair of the Referendum Commission, Mr Justice Kevin Cross has confirmed this. In fact there is nothing to stop our Oireachtas from banning surrogacy altogether.
AHR and surrogacy have profound moral and legal implications for children. Successive governments have failed children because there is no regulation in this area. The Government has moved to address this failure by enacting the Children and Family Relationships Act and preparing draft legislation to tightly regulate AHR and surrogacy.
If you care for children as I do, I urge you to think about the many LGBT young people out there. I urge you to think about your own children, your nieces, your nephews, your grandchildren and any other child in your life. They may be gay and shouldn’t they have the chance to grow up in a country where they can fall love, make a lifelong commitment and have that relationship valued?
I fear the impact of a No vote on all the LGBT children out there. Studies show that 50 per cent of LGBT young people consider taking their life and 20 per cent actually attempt suicide. Homophobic bullying, self-hatred and self-harm and are part of their experience. Societal acceptance could help turn this around.
The LGBT children of this country are watching. They are waiting and they are hoping.
Tanya Ward is Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance