Seanad debates

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015: Second Stage


12:00 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

This Bill, like the curate's egg, is good in parts. I welcome, in particular, the efforts to recognise the right of children to their identity, even though more needs to be done in the area. I welcome the improved guardianship for fathers but there is still a need for further action in this area. I also welcome the access for grandparents. There is an unseemly haste in how the Bill is being pushed through both Houses. The contrast has already been made with the animal welfare Bill which took 13 months. It is hard not to believe that the best interests of the child are not placed subsidiary to a perceived political imperative. There are important and profound issues at stake in the subject matter which require in-depth consideration.

We are all shaped to some degree by our life experiences. I am married now for over 40 years with three children which gives me an appreciation of the value that children place on a mother and a father. For most of my childhood, I grew up in a single-parent household with my mother and two sisters as our father died when we were very young. Obviously, this experience has given me not only a perspective but a deep conviction about the benefits of two-parent upbringing, as well as the right that children have to a father and a mother. My particular involvement over many decades has given me a further insight into the changing trends of family structure and the comparable advantages and disadvantages.

Ireland is experiencing similar trends in family fragmentation, structure and diversity that have taken place in other countries. Recent studies in England emphasise the acceleration of these changing patterns. Between 1845 and 1960, there were only, on average, 5% of births outside marriage. By 2004, this had grown to 42%, with the most spectacular increase among working class communities. This was attributed in part to the collapse of industrial employment in those areas. Policymakers have failed to recognise, acknowledge and attempt to arrest the trend which is clearly not beneficial to the interests of the single mother, children or society. I feel it appropriate at this stage that I pay tribute to my own mother. She sacrificed her own life to rear us in very difficult economic times. I have so much admiration for single mothers who lose out on education, employment, career opportunities, perhaps even marriage, to look after their children, generally in a very financially challenged status. Often, they do it on their own when fathers have abrogated their responsibilities.

The economic cost of family fragmentation is enormous. A 1998 USA report put the cost there at $112 billion per year, amounting to over $1 trillion in a decade to cover associated costs and social programmes, education and the criminal justice fallout. The estimate for Britain is £15 billion but I have seen a figure as high as £24 billion per year with just 0.2% spent on prevention. The economic argument alone would seem compelling for the introduction of appropriate preventive measures. Supporting marriage is not about attacking other relationships but about recognising that it is the bedrock upon which a strong, fair and stable society is built.

There are general flaws in this Bill. It does not regulate DAHR fully but rather only legislates for some aspects of it and does so in a piecemeal fashion. DAHR will still take place in an unregulated environment without any independent regulatory authority. The Bill only deals with parentage issues and access to limited donor-related information. It ignores the fact that DAHR is an international commercial business with gametes and embryos being traded between overseas bio banks and DAHR facilities in this State.

The Bill does nothing to safeguard the child's right to have a mother and father. It does not safeguard this right in the Parts dealing with DAHR and adoption. Countries like Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Switzerland limit AHR and DAHR to certain types of couples so as to protect the child's right to a mother and a father. This Bill will create a situation where some children will have one legal parent or two legal mothers and no legal father or vice versa.That, in no way, respects the genetic relatedness and kinship of DAHR-created children and completely disconnects legal motherhood and fatherhood from genetic parenthood. Dr. Joanna Rose, who will be known to many as a product of a sperm donor, talks about the effects, both personal and social, of disrupting the unity of biological and social relatedness.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have a right to know and to be raised by their parents. This presupposes that the child-parent relationship is a biological one and tries to guarantee that children will have rights in respect of their natural parents and natural identity.

The Bill provides that the child will receive very basic donor information when he or she turns 18 years of age. I welcome the fact that this will happen but it needs to be significantly broadened. Given that the overwhelming majority of donor sperm comes from Cryos International Sperm Bank in Denmark and most donor eggs come from Ukraine, how will the donor information provisions allow the child to have the right to know his or her parents as per the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1990? The Irish government is redefining the family and is doing it in a way in which the family is completely decoupled from nature, mothers and fathers and natural ties. Once preference was given to mother-father families but now in the interest of adult equality, mother-father families will not be preferred.

The Minister will be aware the former Minister, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, when championing the Adoption Bill through the House in 1991, said that everybody accepts that, generally, the best interest of the child is served in a home where there are two parents. It is not general for a single person to adopt a child and is only in very exceptional circumstances that will apply. Indeed, the Adoption Authority of Ireland, on its website, underscores that and it clearly states that unmarried and unrelated sole adoptees have an extra hurdle to overcome.

A woman gave birth to her single son's child through IVF in Britain. The son's mother is the birth mother of this child and is also the grandmother of the child. Robert Flello, a Labour Party Member of Parliament in Britain, asked what is the potential emotional damage to the child in years to come? We cannot ignore this question. The Bill allows use of sperm or eggs of other family members. Such confused family relationships, well removed from the norm, will at the very least generate confusion and inequality among children. It raises the most profound and difficult ethical and child welfare issues. Does the Minister still think it is right to rush this Bill through both Houses?

Other countries recognise the difficult ethical matters that are involved and their approach prioritises the safeguarding of children. Other countries are more cautious to avoid unintended consequences. They recognise the welfare interest of the child is paramount. A child-centred Bill should not permit the natural ties to be severed deliberately, depriving a child of a mother or a father or both. This commodification of children Bill, as it stands, is a betrayal of our republican heritage and our Republic, creating, as it does, fundamental inequality for children. Some will have a mother and a father but some will not, by diktat of Government and the Legislature.

On the eve of the centenary of 1916, we have abandoned the vision of treating all of the children of the nation equally. I hope that as the Bill passes through Committee and Report Stages, the Minister will be amenable to remedying its flaws. If not, is náire atá ann don Aire agus is náire atá ann don Rialtas.


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