Bigotry, intolerance and marriage equality – a reply to Breda O’Brien

So much has been said and written on the marriage equality debate of late that I was reluctant to add my voice to the melee. Mostly because those who have written and spoken have done so regularly and in far more articulate and comprehensive terms than I could possibly hope to do within the confines of a single blog post. Colm O’Gorman, for example, every time he speaks on the issue does sterling work in debunking myths. And this piece by Carol Hunt in today’s Sunday Independent says it so much better than I ever could. With biscuits. However, reading Breda O’Brien’s defence of the status quo in yesterday’s Irish Times left me so bewildered that I felt compelled to reply.

It’s fair to say that Breda’s ideology and my own beliefs do not normally correspond. However, no matter how disagreeable her beliefs to me, I can acknowledge that O’Brien is occasionally capable of making a sensible argument.  In fact, I roundly applauded her piece on suicide and alcohol, published in January this year. Which makes it all the more remarkable that such a meandering piece could possibly, in O’Brien’s mind, advance her own cause.

O’Brien writes in reply to a piece published by the same newspaper by Fintan O’Toole, which suggested that the arguments against marriage equality were so flimsy that they essentially amounted to bigotry. O’Brien’s response was to argue that these arguments were not bigotry; rather that liberals like O’Toole were blind to the merits of conservative values and arguments, which in essence suggest that appeals to the greater good (“even, in this case, a child-centred good”) trump those “liberal” values of equality, choice and fairness.

At least O’Brien is admitting that, at the very least, opposing marriage equality is unfair.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of pulling apart her arguments. Many of them speak for themselves. But while they have already been addressed comprehensively, point by point elsewhere, I’ll reply to a couple that jumped out at me.

Firstly, there’s the lazy invocation of the tired old “liberalism vs. conservatism” argument. As well as being patronising and reeking of moral superiority (the essence being that conservatives make deeper, more rational considerations and that the former does not understand the rationale of the latter’s arguments) it takes no cognisance of the fact that 75% of the population, who support legislating for marriage equality, are rather unlikely to all classify themselves as liberal. This is not – or should not – be an argument based on political ideology, and on why conservatism apparently trumps liberalism when it comes to the greater good. Rather, the essence of the pro-equality debate is to show that we, as a society, value all members equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. To reduce it to a mere ideological argument exposes the detachment of those at the heart of the opposing debate from why this is actually important. It’s one-dimensional and, I would go so far as to say, irrelevant.

“Thoughtful conservatives are not bigoted, or intellectually inferior, or vile: they just see the balance of values differently”, says O’Brien. Indeed. In fact, if I were a thoughtful conservative, I would be deeply embarrassed by the fact that O’Brien claims to represent conservatives on this issue. Indeed, You need only look to New Zealand to see that some conservatives are capable and willing to embrace positive change.

O’Brien also says she believes marriage is a solemn covenant. So do I. So, I would wager do many of those gay couples who take the massive step of standing in front of their family and friends, publicly declaring their love for each other, and indicating their intention to commit to each other in a partnership for the rest of their lives. Based on love, that commitment to me is a sacred one (though crucially, there is nothing saying it has to be either sacred or based on love).

O’Brien states, however, that “society has a major stake because it provides the most stable environment for bringing up children, a physical and spiritual expression of the couple’s love.” This is incorrect. Obviously – and this has been effectively addressed a thousand times – this definition glaringly excludes those marriages that do not have children. It also, with no justification, calls into question those families who successfully bring up children without being wed. Rather, I see society’s stake in marriage as essentially ensuring that the contract I enter into, of my own free will protects me and my partner  and my home – and any children we may have – should anything happen to either of us. This, in addition to how I personally view marriage. The fact remains that civil partnership does not extend the same protection to same-sex couples. And it should. So yes, marriage is a personal relationship, but this is precisely why the state should take an interest.

It’s also churlish and petty of the Catholic Church to try to blackmail the state by implying they will refuse to carry out civil ceremonies in tandem with Catholic ones, as they have always done. Sadly, it’s also disenfranchising no-one but their own practising members.

O’Brien insists, once again that a “child needs both a mother and a father”,  despite there not being a shred of citable evidence available in the public domain that suggests that children do not fare just as well with same-sex parents. She suggests that in times when these ideals are not met, people “usually do their very best, and most times, the child turns out fine”. What a thinly-veiled, patronising insult to one-parent families, for example, to suggest that their family unit is less valid or desirable or even potentially damning to a child than the two-parent mother and father ideal. How judgemental. Legislating for marriage equality does not, as O’Brien suggests in a further challenge to the credibility of her own argument, declare that having both a mother and a father has no intrinsic value. And anyone who would suggest so is guilty of some rather poor spin.

(Interestingly, no argument either for or against marriage equality I have seen takes cognisance of the fact that children are not solely raised within the home. Rather, many influencers of children during their formative years are outsiders – be this extended family, teachers, youth group leaders, or indeed those further afield like say, media figures. So, just like those who confirm to the “ideal” family unit, parents in same-sex partnerships are not entirely responsible for how their children turn out.)

O’Brien’s piece then descends into further farce as she ties herself up in knots over the use of language and makes bizarre references to fictional characters like Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Wonderland in an attempt to legitimise her argument. Language is powerful, she says. Yes indeed, Breda. Language is very, very powerful. And language that says clearly to members of our society that they are not – or indeed, should not be equal or entitled to the same legal rights as others is powerful AND damning.

The most worrying aspect of the fact that O’Brien and the Iona Institute are allowed apparently unfettered access to our national airwaves on an almost constant basis, despite, in this case a lack of any relevant qualification, raises questions about the media’s difficulty in attempting to find qualified dissenting voices. While I for one am perfectly happy to see the Iona Institute rolled out as frequently as possible, because no-one does a better job of undermining their own arguments than they do themselves, ultimately the loser is society. Arguments not rooted in fact only serve to disarm the legislative process and the poor quality of opposition debate contributes to a corresponding decline in quality of legislation.

Ultimately, and happily, we all know that change is on the way. Even old conservative Ireland is gradually recognising that legislating for marriage equality won’t stop the world from turning, and will not impact on them in any meaningful way unless they choose to avail of it. But they are realising that it will make a positive difference to the rights of others, in addition to telling them that we respect and value them and their love equally. And that day is not far away.

I’ll leave you with this – a humorous and emotional celebration of marriage equality and what it really means by –  you guessed it –  a conservative.

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Irish blogs

Looking for new reading material? Or curious to see what other Irish bloggers write about?

Fellow Irish blogger Limmster has created a new Pinterest Board for Irish blogs, over here.  Sorted by category, it’s well worth a follow if you’re a Pinterest user (I confess I’m not the best, but I’m told it’s quite intuitive).

I’ll let her tell you all about it here.

 

Welcome to my new home

I’ve moved house. Kinda.

Currently straddling two platforms (ooh-err), An Cailín Rua will soon be a WordPress only site with its very own domain.

I’ve even set up a Facebook page, so give it a like if you’d like to be kept up to date with all the goings on over here. 

Thanks for reading, and please bear with me while I iron out teething problems (i.e. figure out how all this works).

#Savita, abortion, and why no-one is ever right

The findings from the inquest of Savita Halappanavar in Galway this week make for grim reading. As the days pass, and snippets of information are fed through on TV, radio and social media, with each sorry revelation we are slowly piecing together a tragic chain events. We are hearing of failures – both human and systemic – of frustrations, of fears and of the story of the very avoidable death of a young woman. What struck me most when that story came to light on 14th November 2012 was that happened to Savita could easily have happened to any one of us, our sisters, friends, daughters. And amidst the many, many elements of this complex tale – the reporting, the laws, the healthcare, what ensures this makes headlines day after day is not just the politics, but the very human face of the story.
Photo: IrishTimes.com

The discussion and debate around Savita’s inquest this week has been criticised for the level to which it has been hijacked and politicised by the two sides of the debate – the “pro-life” and the “pro-choice”. (Terms, incidentally, I detest.) Indeed, the crassness and closed-mindedness of some of the commentary has been nothing short of disrespectful in its militant determination to push its own agendas. Many of the pro-life side blatantly and robotically ignoring the fact that Savita was refused a medical termination was a key factor in the outcome. Many in the pro-choice camp ignoring the fact that in turn, medical negligence has clearly also played a large role. The complexity of the inquest means that both the abortion issue and the standard of the medical care received by Savita are relevant, and to deny either amounts to a deliberate obfuscation of the story in order to pursue a personal agenda. Which in itself is disingenuous and counter-productive, even disrespectful. This is not to mention the glee with which certain elements are attacking Catholics en masse, in what amounts to another form of thinly disguised bigotry. Not that certain members of the church can claim any degree of critical thinking in the debate, such is their adherence to tired Catholic dogma at the expense of the more Christian values of compassion and care.

However, we do need to have this discussion. And happily, we are hearing a little more from those who occupy the middle ground. Listening to and watching coverage of the debate on abortion in the Irish media over the past 20-odd years, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no middle ground. That everyone is either pro-life or pro-abortion. I have even heard arguments rubbishing the use of the term “pro-choice”, suggesting that those who use it are simply, “pro-abortion”, and why dress it up? This does a great disservice to the large proportion of people who may or may not personally agree with abortion, but fervently hope that they are never faced with that decision, and would not seek to deny others the choice of making it. I think of all the discourse I have read around abortion since November, Johnny Fallon summed up my own feelings best in this piece published in the Irish Independent. The issue is far from clear-cut, and despite what political commentators insist, I would hazard a guess that most reasonable, compassionate Irish people feel like this and above all, hope it is a decision they are never faced with.

What irks me most, I think within this debate, is that, within the pro-life lobby – apart from the frankly ludicrous women-queuing-up-to-have-abortions scenario they appear to envisage –  there is little recognition of the fact that even if abortion were readily available in Ireland, it is a path that many women, even those facing an unplanned or unviable pregnancy would not choose. Even among those who advocate for choice, it’s a safe to suggest that for some, it would not be a choice they would make personally.  Equally, what irritates me about certain elements of the pro-choice campaign is the inherent assumption that all pro-lifers are driven by a religious agenda.

Meanwhile, what scares me the most reading Savita’s story, is that as a woman of childbearing age, under current Irish law, I can present to a hospital, in physical and emotional pain, be told that my baby is going to die, and be forced, against all my wishes and instincts, to comply with a standard procedure – natural delivery – that prolongs that pain. Under Irish law, in this situation, I don’t have a say in my treatment. Whatever your views on abortion, forcing a pregnant woman who is miscarrying to carry through with a natural delivery (and placing her at a higher risk of infection) when there are medical options available to hasten the procedure is, in my mind, wrong. The thought of it terrifies me – Praveen and Savita are described as “begging” for a termination. How needlessly traumatic.  I’m not medical expert, but I can see no moral or ethical reason why she should not have had the choice of a medical termination in that situation. And I see no reason either why a middle-aged midwife should feel she has to apologise for explaining the cultural basis of our laws to a distressed woman why it is that her wishes had to be ignored.

Incidentally, neither do I, as a citizen of a supposed democracy, should I feel I should have to consider before attending a doctor whether their own personal beliefs will prevent me from accessing all the information I need to decide what course of action is best for me. While it’s natural that doctors hold personal beliefs, based on their own ethical and moral code, at the very least they should be obliged to provide information and contacts on all options, including abortion, should a woman seek them.

Using Savita’s death to call for “Action on X” makes me feel uncomfortable, however. In fact,  I have serious reservations about leglisating for X in its current form, but that’s a discussion for another time. My understanding and belief is that even had it been already enshrined in legislation, it would have done little to prevent Savita’s death, as it was not believed her life was in danger when the termination was requested. Had Savita been granted a termination when she sought one, however, and not been left vulnerable to infection for so long, it is likely and arguable that the sepsis which killed her would never have set in. (It is also likely, that had it been a surgical termination, she would have monitored more closely). That she did not, and was not is a direct consequence of our abortion laws. And who is to say that Savita is the first, or will be the last?

Ultimately, I am in favour of full choice for women when it comes to abortion. Yes, abortion “on demand” (what a dreadful, dreadful term) should be available, if a woman decides it is the option she wants to pursue.  I believe that any woman who honestly thinks an abortion is the best option for her should receive the necessary physical – and more importantly, psychological care, firstly to make that decision and secondly, to deal with the implications if she does. While I may hold my own beliefs, I cannot in good conscience say why they should prevent others from making a decision that involves their own body, based on their own instincts, conscience and beliefs. I would greatly welcome a referendum on full abortion; however I cannot imagine that happening in Ireland even within my lifetime.

I’ve been accused, perhaps justifiably, of passing the buck on this before. How I can advocate giving people the choice to “kill an unborn child”? Do my beliefs extend to giving women the option of third trimester abortions? Where I would draw the line and at what stage does an “embryo” or “fetus” become a “life”? Again, I have my own beliefs, but I still maintain it’s not for me to say. In the absence of proof, I’m not the one who should draw those lines definitively for others. All I can ever do is try, in as much as is possible, to control my own situation, and live by my own conscience and moral code when it comes to such matters, and importantly, allow others the freedom to do the same. And certainly where others are not in a situation to control their situations (e.g in the case of a pregnancy as a result of rape, or  where a pregnant woman has been told her fetus is incompatible with life) who on earth am I to deny them the means of dealing with it in the way they feel is right?

The bottom line is that with abortion,  no-one can ever claim to be really right.

Whatever your opinions on abortion, or indeed on religion or healthcare in Ireland, it is important and respectful to remember that at the heart of the evidence we are hearing this week lies a tragic story of a beautiful, healthy young woman, two bereaved parents living half a world away and a heartbroken husband who has lost his wife needlessly. With her, he lost the promise of a family, and whilst dealing with his own grief he has had to fight to have his story heard and believed. In doing so, he has done this country a huge service by making us confront an issue we have conveniently ignored for far too long. That should not be forgotten.

 Photo: D.B. Patil (www.thehindu.com)

Booze-free Lent comes to an end

I was asked to write this piece for Newstalk.ie on my experience of giving up alcohol for Lent.

The piece was published on the Newstalk site on Thursday 28th March 2013.

As an average thirtysomething woman, I’d classify my relationship with alcohol as relatively healthy.Like most, I enjoy partaking of a glass of wine or three of a Friday, or sinking a pint of the black stuff over a chat with friends. I may have suffered an occasional hangover, yes. The end of an odd night out may have been a little hazy. I might have missed a few Sunday mornings, buried in the Horrors under my pillow. But “big nights” nowadays are few and far between, and the idea of bypassing the booze for Lent wasn’t high on my agenda.

So what prompted the decision? I bit the bullet for a number of reasons (none of them religious).I was unemployed, having left my job to embark on the uncertainty of a career change. I’d beenfeeling the effects of an unhealthy holiday season. And crucially, I was stony broke. The stage was set.

Around the same time, I’d written a piece on my blog about attitudes to alcohol in Ireland called“The Elephant in the Room”, questioning why, with suicide levels so high, no-one really questions the effect our relationship with alcohol has on mental wellbeing. The piece was published on a national news site and the reaction on social media was astonishing. I was inundated with replies relating the pressure people felt to drink. Some reported concealing non-drinking, or avoiding social occasions altogether to avoid the hassle of justifying their choice. Non-drinkers disliked the messiness of drunken nights out, and being met with suspicion and mistrust. It appears that “peer pressure” is not solely the preserve of children or adolescents.

On the back of this, I saw the Lenten endeavour as a timely personal experiment. I’d never gone “ off the booze” for a deliberate, sustained period since I came of drinking age, and wanted to see how I’d cope with cold sobriety in social situations, and the reactions I would encounter. I also wanted to do my own bit to challenge attitudes.

I embarked with a sense of trepidation. I didn’t want to avoid social occasions, but neither did I relish the thought of feeling socially stunted without a drink or two. The first couple of weeks were difficult, and I often, rather worryingly, found myself craving a glass of wine, particularly at weekends. However, with the exception of the odd “Why are you doing this to yourself?”, and“Jesus, I could never do that – in March, are you mad?!”, friends were largely encouraging.

How did I cope? Ultimately – and this may appear obvious – I found company was key. I enjoyed some great nights with friends as the sole non-drinker, without it being an issue for either party. In contrast, I attended a wedding at which I knew barely anyone, and struggled. I felt my personality had fled, hand-in-hand with my alcohol crutch, leaving my confidence legless and my dancing even more uncoordinated than usual. I settled into sobriety, though and while I missed being able to have“just the one”, not drinking began to feel normal.

So, six weeks on, was it worthwhile? Yes, absolutely. Admittedly, it’s a relatively short period of time, but what they say is true – I feel healthier, happier and clearer of mind. The convenience of hopping into the car after a night out, and waking hangover-free were definite positives. I certainly didn’t miss the Monday beer blues. The time out has helped me to recalibrate my attitude towards alcohol, and I have a feeling I’m likely in future to indulge a little less, and enjoy it a little more.

Ultimately, however, I don’t see myself as a non-drinker, and rather than moving towards the divisiveness of non-drinkers having their own social spaces and activities, what I’d like is a happy medium where drinkers and non-drinkers can feel more comfortable socialising together. I’d also like to see social occasions focusing less on alcohol consumption, and I’d love to see less pressure placed on those drink moderately to consume more.

Would I do it again? Probably.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just looking forward to some chocolate this Easter.