Monday, 8 March 2021
International Women's Day: Statements
I thank the Minister for being here today and for taking these statements on International Women's Day. The Minister of State has stolen my line. We had the same first sentence. The theme for this year's International Women's Day is "choose to challenge". This indicates that a challenged world is an alert world and that from challenge comes change. My challenge relates to who is making the decisions and who has a seat at the table.
I will begin by quoting the late US Supreme Court judge, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made." To be fair, I believe that does not only apply to women. I believe that all those affected by decisions should have a seat at the table where they are made and that we should have diversity and inclusion across all of Parliament, the Legislature.
I was introduced to speaking out for women when I was a very little girl when a new church was opened in Clondalkin, where we then lived. The priest announced from the altar on the first Sunday that he was looking for men to volunteer to be readers at mass and for women to volunteer to clean the church. My mother was the sole objecting voice to find that announcement offensive and to challenge it. It took the voice of a woman to point out the blatant stereotyping and discrimination. It took a pregnant woman sitting at the Cabinet table for the blatant discrimination of the lack of maternity provision for politicians to get a proper debate and resolution. Let us remind ourselves that this is 2021. We will shortly celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the foundation of the State but, with regard to the function of the reproduction of our population, maternity leave for legislators is still not an entitlement. The case for councillors is similar. Arrangements need to be put in place to address their needs in respect of having children and childcare, an issue I urgently want addressed.
Throughout the crisis, women have been disproportionately affected in terms of their sexual and reproductive health. For example, it is difficult to get a determination from the Department of Health on whether travelling abroad for IVF treatment is deemed essential. For a couple desperate to have a baby, as time is ticking and against them, this journey is, without doubt, absolutely essential. The review of the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 has commenced. We are now three years on and still women have to travel. This needs to be addressed with the review. Who will be at that table and who will conduct that review? There are matters still outstanding including access to contraception, ensuring that sex education is universally and uniformly delivered, and ensuring a woman's safe passage to a doctor's clinic when seeking abortion services. We need to make sure that no one is left behind in this review.
There are similar issues with regard to assisted human reproduction. Without ensuring that the right voices are at the table, we may well walk into passing an impotent law that disenfranchises most of those who need it.The Oireachtas is preparing to introduce the assisted human reproduction, AHR, Bill. The current commentary by the AHR coalition is that the legislation is not fit for purpose and ignores the calls from groups most affected by its provisions, including Equality for Children, LGBTQ groups, Surrogacy Ireland, Families for Surrogacy, 221 Plus, cystic fibrosis service advocates, the National Infertility Support and Information Group and many more. The proposed scope for surrogacy under the Bill is limited and does not have significant cognisance of the plight of families wrestling with infertility that is medically or socially caused. Pre-approval, altruistic, domestic provision and a raft of other models are covered, but what about the survivors of cervical cancer who are excluded from bearing their own children, those who were born without a uterus and those who are wrestling with infertility where the cause is undiagnosed and who have been abandoned to unregulated private medicine? What about single women who want to access IVF services or all those longing to be parents? They will be left behind by this Bill, which proposes a regime that has been in operation in Canada and the UK for some years but which is now under review because it has been shown to be not fit for purpose in how it has played out.
What of the mothers of surrogate-born children who are not recognised as mothers by the State? They were given some comfort and status by the Children and Family Relations Act 2015, in which they were designated as custodians and guardians, but they remain susceptible to the precarious whim of their spouses for even that unsatisfactory legal status relationship with their much-longed for and loved children, the children whom they have nurtured since before conception and, through no fault of their own, could not carry in their own wombs. What of the children already born via surrogacy, citizens of this State who are in a precarious position in terms of their entitlement to those mothers and to their inheritance rights from same? We are leaving them behind.
We are at a juncture where the proposed legislation is drafted by those who, by the stroke of fate, have no need of it and is set to ignore the voices of those who are most crying out for it. That is because the most affected are not at the decision-making table and the discourse about them is sometimes only short of branding them as child abusers. Today, I welcome and embrace the theme of International Women's Day. Today, I am choosing to challenge. If we are to live in a truly inclusive and just society that legislates for ethics rather than morals, we must ensure that the voices not at the table are heard and acted on.
I will end with a poem written by the mother of a surrogate-born child who was unable to carry her own. It reads:
Not flesh of my flesh,
nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute,
you didn't grow under my heart,
but in it.
To those women who have wrestled with their fertility, I dedicate this day and my speech.