The very first session of the newly convened Citizens Assembly to consider Gender Equality (February 15/16,2020) doesn’t leave any doubt about the point of the exercise. Previous assemblies were accused of manipulating participants in various ways to bring them to pre-determined conclusions. However, it would be hard to point at anything so blatantly biased as the framing statements of the Assembly’s newly appointed Chairperson, Catherine Day, as she opened the conference. ‘It is up to people how they define themselves’, she said. She didn’t leave her meaning in doubt ‘The public good is advancing gender equality’ and that is ‘inclusive of all genders’. So the deliberations of the assembly proceed from that starting point. Those who might want to challenge the givens are precluded from doing so. Since they are fraught with complications and controversy, one might have expected an assembly of citizens with a consultative brief be allowed to examine them first.
The Assembly’s direction of travel was also clear from the line up of presenters for the first session and the negative focus on the special recognition of ‘the family based on marriage’ in the Constitution, the very provision that a previous Citizens Assembly saw as a positive and sought to extend to same sex couples. Back in 2015, when the referendum to open marriage to all couples ‘irrespective of gender’ succeeded, it was hailed and celebrated as a definitive victory for the LGBT community. Now it appears to have been either not enough or the wrong kind of remedy. In fact the testimony from the initial panel of contributors would suggest that it is not a case of either/or but both. The 2015 marriage referendum did not fully achieve equality for some and left single and unmarried parents, still on the margins.
Paula Fagan, CEO of LGBT Ireland, one of the three citizen contributors to the Assembly, campaigned with her partner Denise Charlton, to change the definition of marriage in 2015. The aim was to broaden the definition to include gay couples. That was presented as the definitive goal in the campaign for equality. Now however, Paula Fagan wants to ‘broaden the definition of family’. She made her pitch within the receptive atmosphere set up by the Chairperson’s opening address. Her input raised many questions. She claimed that under the current dispensation her children will be ‘strangers’ to her in law once they turn eighteen. If that is the situation in 2020 then it must also have been the situation back in 2015. The apparent failure to explore her puzzling remarks is very disturbing and enforces the view that what is being billed as ‘an exercise in deliberative democracy’ is in fact no more than the precisely choreographed promotion of an ideology.
Paula Fagan referred to Denise Charlton as her ‘partner’ so it is unclear if they availed of the right to marry and its associated privileges which they and other campaigners made so much of back in 2015. At any rate, they now appear to want to remove or effectively nullify the constitutional provision they fought so hard to extend a mere five years ago.
The lack of any coherence between the testimonies of the speakers raised even more questions. Paula Fagan was followed by a single father, Dave Saunders, CEO of From Lads to Dads, who spoke about the importance of supports for fathers, ‘ the forgotten part of the family’. Paula Fagan did not mention the fathers of her own and Denise Charlton’s children at the Assembly. However, in an Irish Times interview in 2011, she revealed her son is fathered by an anonymous sperm donor and Denise’s by a friend, who along with his male partner are ‘friendly uncles’ to both children. This is the kind of background that might lead members to ask themselves what the real agenda of the Citizens Assembly actually is.
The family unit of mothers and fathers and children either has value or it doesn’t. If it has value then it makes sense to support it. It does not make sense to support the relationship between a separated father like Dave Saunders and his children and give no particular recognition to the intact unit of mother, father and children. It does not make sense to set store by supporting separated dads when their role can be filled just as well by ‘friendly uncles’
The third speaker, a single mother called Adele O Connor, gave the Assembly the clearest hint of how they are meant to proceed. The special status of the family based on marriage placed her and her daughter, who is now twenty five, under ‘stigma’. Teachers referred to her as ‘Mrs or by her ‘ex’s surname’ and when corrected looked at her like she was ‘ one of those unmarried mothers’. Whatever might have happened twenty or so years ago, schools today, where close to half the children are born outside wedlock, are very sensitive to the family dynamics of their pupils. It is extremely doubtful if Ms O Connor’s experience could be repeated today. But then twenty years ago an unmarried mother would hardly be addressed by her former boyfriend’s surname either unless that was also the surname of her child. It hardly needs constitutional change to address such understandable even if deeply uncomfortable social blunders. Yet, this was the testimony selected for the Assembly so that they would at very least consider that very conclusion. The constitutional provision that gives special recognition to the value of the family based on marriage, in other words on the public, lifelong commitment of parents to each other and to the shared task of raising their children, is presented as exclusionary and ‘stigmatising’ for unmarried parents.
Paula Fagan said what matters is the quality of the love children receive, ‘not the number of parents they have nor their gender”. She didn’t say that it doesn’t matter whether the parents have a biological link to the children or not. It presumably matters to her and her partner that they are both biological mothers to one of their children. Children, however, have two parents. If motherhood is important, why not fatherhood? If the biological tie is of such significance for adults, why wouldn’t it be significant for children too?
It is indeed very unlikely that any of these questions will be raised at the Assembly unless the randomly selected members are more astute and less malleable than the assembly conveners think. It will take a degree of grit as well to challenge mantras like ‘what matters is that the children are loved’. It matters indeed but other things matter a lot too, wherever you are on the ideological spectrum. Children need values, norms and positive models to guide their development. Values and norms will either be provided by their parents or guardians or by the State. The denial of any special constitutional privilege to the natural ties of children and parents allows the State to impose its ideology on the nation’s children more fteely. The fact is there are little or no tangible benefits to constitutional nods of approval and nebulous pledges of support for the family based on marriage. But they are a powerful defence when the integrity of the family is attacked. They really come into their own when the State wants to insert itself between parents and children by, for instance, introducing mandatory school programmes that violate the moral convictions of the parents. Try telling the government and its satellites of advising NGOs that love is all that matters then and you will find how little currency it has with the same people who weaponize it to attack the very foundations of the social order on which our civilization rests.
We are already at a point where a former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, calls the raising of children in religious faith indoctrination and a violation of their human rights. The UN thinks the same but given its many declarations about the rights of parents to raise their children according to their beliefs, it is somewhat constrained and fork-tongued on the issue. . But there are worrying signs as an aggressive new ideology of gender diversity and equality continues to forge ahead with the aid of powerful lobbies. Removing the special constitutional protection for the family in the name of sensitivity and inclusiveness is a strategic next step.
But the diversity and equality campaign won’t finish there. We have, as a society, already officially accepted that husband and wife are not necessarily corollaries, that children can have a gestational and a genetic mother and be raised by two ‘fathers’, that a child can have two mothers and know their father as an occasional visiting ‘uncle’ or not at all. Many of us have come to accept that all that is perfectly fine so long as the children concerned are ‘loved’. But there is a lot more to be rolled out. We are in the early stages of transgender rights that demand fathers can be mothers and vice versa, that biological men are eligible to compete against women for awards in every category of achievement, that young children can be irreversibly mutilated because they don’t conform to the very gender stereotypes that are rejected as social conditioning by the same advocates of progressivism in other contexts.
Citizens Assemblies and Constitutional Conventions are only the first steps in this massive, reality bending, social experiment that continues its insidious march across every secular and sad to say many religious institutions too.
The Citizens Assembly will continue its deliberations on March 21st and 22nd.