In public debates on sexuality, conservatives are increasingly and explicitly relying on the popular notion of science as objective, apolitical truth as a means of opposing progress. More and more, the discourse on marriage and parenting is being framed in terms of the “best outcomes” for children. However, this focus on scientific studies does not arise out of sincere devotion to empirical research but instead serves to obscure and confuse the true nature of these debates.
In the on-going Irish debate on marriage equality, conservatives are attempting to defuse accusations of homophobia by appealing to the science of parenting. The argument is that children raised by heterosexual parents have the best outcomes in general and that this claim is supported by the empirical research. In this way, conservatives pretend that homosexuality is merely incidental to the debate. The real concern should be children, and it just so happens that same-sex couples might necessarily be unsuited to child rearing. As this infamous video from the Iona Institute tells us, “it’s not discrimination to treat different situations in different ways”. Anti-gay conservatives like those at Iona cast themselves as citizens seeking to be informed by hard science while LGBT activists are blinded to the welfare of children by emotional sentimentalism. The question of legal equality for same-sex couples is framed as a question of the science of parenting, rather than as a question of exclusion.
In the aftermath of the death of Savita Halappanavar, anti-abortion campaigners in Ireland have deployed, either implicitly or expressly, numerous floodgate arguments in an effort to sway public opinion and halt the government’s plans to finally legislate for the X case.
In their submission to the Joint Committee on Health and Children in January, Berry Kiely and Caroline Simons of the Pro-Life Campaign argued that codifying in law provisions for the treatment of suicidal pregnant women would inevitably lead to widely available abortion. This has been a common refrain ever since the X case judgement was handed down more than 20 years ago. Pro-Life campaigners would have us believe that legislation similar to what the X case judgement requires was enacted in the United Kingdom in the form of the Abortion Act 1967. That law, apparently, inadvertently led to a situation where women could easily obtain abortions. However, even the most cursory look at section 1(1) of the law in question shows that it bears little resemblance to the restrictive bill proposed by the Irish government. The ’67 Act allowed abortions in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, threats to the life of the mother and where two doctors had agreed that “continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk… of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family” before the 24th week of pregnancy.
Gender is really at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate. Well, at least that’s what David Quinn, the figurehead of the anti-marriage equality movement in Ireland, thinks. He says that the debate comes down to whether or not we attach “any particular importance to gender differences.” In an article of his published last month in the Independent, he criticises proponents of same-sex marriage for ignoring things like the “sexual complementarity” of men and women and the importance of the “blend” of motherhood and fatherhood in the rearing of children. His argument is neatly summed up by this paragraph:
In the name of ‘tolerance’ and ‘equality’ Irish people are being asked to abandon the notion that motherhood and fatherhood are complementary roles of special value to children and society.
What are these apparently important and complementary gender differences? Curiously, David Quinn doesn’t elaborate on them on his article. In fact, he never elaborates on this point, even when I’ve asked him directly in the course of our interactions on Twitter. His use of the terms gender differences and complementary roles rather than gender roles is also evasive; the latter term is associated with an era when women stayed in the home and had dinner waiting for their husbands when they returned from exclusively male workplaces. Gender differences seems to suggest something altogether different, but in reality, it doesn’t. The idea of motherhood and fatherhood as complementary only makes sense if we think of them in terms of particular roles that are, or should be, fulfilled by men and women in the home.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on some introductory lectures in a local college where pupils from secondary schools who might be considering third level education were given presentations on the social and community studies course offered by the college.
When discussing the concept of community with the visiting pupils, the lecturer who conducts these presentations invites pupils to offer examples on how the term “community” can be used to exclude other people. In all four presentations, one pupil would invariably mention Travellers as an example of a group who exclude others and the rest of the pupils would always nod in agreement. The pupils talked about how Travellers apparently strongly disapprove of inter-marriage with settled people. One of the pupils who offered this example was an exchange student from Germany. The first time this happened, the lecturer seemed taken aback by how oblivious these pupils were; surprised, as I was, that they would mention Travellers, a minority group who face extraordinary and ostensible racism in Ireland, as exclusionary rather than the settled community from which this widespread racism comes. He would then ask them if they agreed that settled people also use community as a means of excluding Travellers and they would halfheartedly agree, almost as if the thought was an imposition!