SPEAKING AT THE Marriage Equality’s LGBT Parenting in Ireland conference, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said proposals for the reform of family law in areas such as “non-traditional” families will shortly be considered by Cabinet.
Addressing the conference, he said his job was to legislate and that he understands that “the process of change will be difficult”.
He added: “There will be controversies on the road ahead. Not everyone will agree with all aspects of the Draft Bill. We may not always agree.”
Time of change
He said the conference is being held at a time of change in Ireland and that the Government’s decision to hold a referendum next year on same-sex marriage is “a major step forward on the path to marriage equality”
However he said there the key issue that needs to be addressed in advance of a referendum is that of children and parental rights.
“The Government is mindful that the position of children in families headed by same-sex couples has been a matter of concern for the Constitutional Convention,” said Shatter.
Over 18 months, Shatter said he and the Department of Justice have been engaged in the preparation of “comprehensive legislative proposals to modernise and reform our laws on the guardianship, custody, upbringing of and access to children to reflect the reality of the diversity of family life in today’s Ireland…” where the overriding principle will be the best interests of the child.
The objective of the Bill prepared, on the basis of which there will be a public consultation, is to remove the legal inequalities between children in a large range of non-traditional families relative to those living in a constitutional family based on marriage, said Shatter.
The Draft Bill will shortly be considered by Cabinet and then published. My objective is that the very much needed new legislation is enacted by the end of this year.
“It seeks to provide legal clarity on parental rights and responsibilities in such situations. What I am aiming to do is to address the diverse situations of LGBT parents but also of heterosexual parents whose situations are not adequately addressed under the current law,” he said.
Citing international research, Shatter said “children can thrive in a variety of family forms and that there is no one family form which has a monopoly in terms of cherishing a child”.
He commended the speakers at the conference, who he said “will help to debunk some of the myths that can bedevil the debate on LGBT parenthood”.
He said the research “usefully reminds us that the key to child welfare is good parenting rather than a specific family form”.
The Justice Minister acknowledged that the issue was a “controversial” one and that people help strong viewpoints on the matter, suggesting that there is research undertaken which may suggest different findings.
However, he said the assumption that the “traditional” marital family is best for children is being questioned. He said while he knew people held strong feelings on the issue he hoped society would be able to “debate positively on these issues”.
Addressing the issue of surrogacy and assisted human reproduction, Shatter said sufficient “safeguards” must be introduced. He added:
I want to rectify the imbalance in parental rights between the parent who is biologically linked to the child and the other parent who does not have this link. I want the second parent to be able to take the day-to-day decisions relating to a child’s life, as a parent and as a guardian, free of the current legal uncertainty.
Very practically, it makes no sense that the second parent would be a stranger in law and that the child would not have secure rights in terms of inheritance and succession.
I am aiming, therefore, to develop a system in which a child born through assisted human reproduction using donor material from a third party would be the child of the both members of the couple.
Shatter said a legal mechanism allowing the child to have legal certainty in terms of parentage and that would enable a surrogate mother to transfer her parental responsibilities to the commissioning couple should be developed.
“I consider that the model of non-commercial surrogacy in operation in countries such as the UK, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands strikes the right balance,” he said, stating that this model enables commissioning couples to have the possibility of becoming parents but works to prevent the exploitation of poor women in developing countries.
“The last thing that we would wish is that our legitimate desire to have children would lead to baby farming or the trafficking or exploitation of vulnerable women by unscrupulous organisations,” he added.
He said all these proposals for reform of family law will shortly be considered by my Cabinet colleagues and then forwarded to the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for consideration, as well as the Joint Oireachtas Childrens Committee.
Myth of the nuclear family
Shatter concluded by disputing the “myth” that the nuclear family of married parents and their children is the only traditional family, stating that the “universality of the nuclear family as the only family type is a creation of American advertising of the post-war era”. He said 100 years ago, children would routinely have been living in families that included parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
So Anne of Green Gables flourished in late nineteenth-century Canada when rescued by the middle-aged siblings, Marilla and Matthew. Similarly, in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s endless quest was to get home, not to a nuclear family but rather to her Aunt Em.
He said he understood the it would be a debate mired in controversy and not everyone would agree, but he welcomed a healthy debate.