Tuesday, 24 March 2015
Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage
It is an extraordinary privilege to comment on this Bill. I begin by remembering the vision, tenacious commitment and hard work of the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, on this Bill, and on the milestone reform of family law that it represents. I acknowledge the Minister's extraordinary passion about getting the Bill right for the children and families of Ireland amidst the highly complex technical, legal and medical issues contained in it. Her contribution indicates all the ways in which she has listened to various concerns and has made changes to the best of her ability. It will never be perfect, especially in light of the time we have waited. I congratulate the Minister on her commitment and on what has been done. It is an extraordinary achievement to have got this far with it.
As a lawmaker I appreciate the Minister's insistence on extensive consultation and her deep listening to the range of views of stakeholders who have come to her, as well as the expertise available and the officials in her Department and her other advisers.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. I remember, with gratitude, the leadership of the committee chairman, Deputy David Stanton, as he chaired extensive hearings on the scheme of the Bill, ably assisted by Senator Ivana Bacik, who has identified the way we made recommendations through that piece of work. The Minister has indicated the ways in which she has accepted those recommendations. I think this is what the Minister was implying in her contribution in terms of how they have walked us through all the work that has been done over the course of some time. Time has been on our side in relation to this Bill.
I view the Bill as a legal bedrock upon which the diversity of families will be valued, recognised and protected in Ireland. It is a landmark Bill.Its enactment will provide a modern system of family law that protects families, and the welfare and best interests of children. It is a modernisation of family law and reflects the diverse range of contexts in which children are being raised today. It offers great flexibility in addressing this emerging diversity. It is diversity and not sameness that is the fundamental principle and norm of human life in the 21st century. Senator Naughton spoke eloquently about diversity, as did others. Senator Bacik spoke about the constitutional reform that is required in order to recognise that diversity, as the constitutional family is still too narrow. At the same time we have a widening of recognition of the diversity of families in the context of at least this statute.
While the traditional model of married biological parents raising their own children is popular and will remain so, many children are being raised in families that do not fit this traditional mould. The Bill offers greater flexibility in addressing these modern parenting arrangements. It recognises various paths to parenting. Not everyone who parents a child is necessarily a biological parent of the child. As the Minister has indicated and other Senators have acknowledged, it takes a child-centred approach; we cannot say that often enough. It reinforces and recognises the responsibilities that a variety of people other than biological parents take on in respect of a child. I know that grandparents are particularly grateful for aspects of the Bill. It ensures that a variety of arrangements are addressed in law, and contributes to stable and secure parenting arrangements for the child.
That said, it is critical to highlight that under the provisions of the Bill, biological parenthood prevails unless very specific and highly regulated steps are taken. The Bill requires the informed consent of all donors and intending parents to DAHR procedures. There are provisions allowing for a change of mind prior to implantation. There are clear and rigorous rules for carrying out donor-assisted human reproduction procedures leading to the assignment of parentage. The procedure must be administered through a certified clinic. There are clear safeguards for the child’s right to identity, allowing the child to access information on reaching the age of 18. In this scenario, no one can become a parent or lose parentage by accident or without their consent. The donor in particular will be fully aware in advance of the fact that he or she will not be treated as a parent. Outside the context of donor-assisted human reproduction and adoption, the parentage of a child is still predicated on the biological link with the child. Where a child has been conceived naturally and not adopted, biological parenthood still very much prevails. It is critical to make that point.
I wish to indicate some of the prime positive changes the Bill will bring to the landscape of family law, and to the protection of the rights and the best interests of children. I will then conclude by identifying some areas where I still have concerns and questions. First, the Bill brings clarity to parentage following assisted human reproduction. It provides greater certainty for the child, for the intended parents and donor or donors. It recognises the lived reality that it is the intending parents who will provide for the child’s needs and eliminates any uncertainty about the responsibility of the non-biological intending parent in such cases. The Bill does this while ensuring that the child has a right to know his or her identity. I was interested in some of Senator Power's suggestions for allowing the child access to certain aspects of his or her identity prior to the age of 18 that do not necessarily require the name of the donor.
Second, the Bill expands the range of circumstances in which a person who is not a legal parent may act as a guardian. It provides a number of new routes to guardianship.
Third, the Bill provides more options for unmarried fathers. I welcome the changes the Minister made. As amended in the Dáil, it allows registrars to certify statutory declarations conferring joint guardianship on unmarried fathers.