It was in power for 14 years but I do not know what it did, except wreck the country.
We have had, as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny and consultative process for this Bill, 15 presentations and 38 submissions to the justice committee. Therefore, those who say the Bill is rushed and there is not enough time should acknowledge that there has been ample opportunity for involvement, the making of submissions and the airing of opinions on the Bill. Could they please desist from the political footballing of trying to talk down this Bill and the forthcoming referendum, and from linking the two together? They are not in any way associated or connected. Members do a disservice to the referendum and this Bill by claiming the contrary. I am not saying Deputy Troy made this claim, but he knows who I mean. Obfuscation leads to confusion, and that is what we should try to avoid.
This Bill is about giving legal clarity to the parentage, guardianship and custody of children living in a range of family situations. It is about putting in place legal protections and supports for the reality that faces many families across the State today. Deputy Troy and other speakers stated that in Ireland, according to the latest census, there were 49,005 households of cohabiting couples with children in 2011. Some 36% of children are born outside marriage. The figures are worth putting in context. Almost 352,000 children live with lone parents, 104,665 children live with unmarried cohabiting parents, and there are 230 same-sex couples with children.
Families in today's Ireland are diverse. The traditional model of married parents and children, under which many of us grew up, is still the most common form of family life in the State, but it is not the only one.
The reality of family life today is that children are parented by biological parents, non-biological parents, other family members and partners, and parents' civil partners. Under our laws currently, there is inadequate provision for the needs of all those children and their families, and we all agree that must change.
Our outdated legal structure and archaic family law provisions must be modernised, reformed and updated to take account of the reality. It is no longer tenable to assert that Irish law should continue to ignore the various family forms that we now know are a reality in society. Our modern laws should be about protecting families and protecting and safeguarding children. That is the purpose of this Bill.
This Government had the first Minister with responsibility for children at Cabinet, a children's rights referendum, and this legislation. That is why it is important that we continue that work. The Bill is child-centred, and we all want to protect and safeguard the child. It continues the constitutional preference for families based on marriage, but at the same time it is providing essential legal certainty for all families, whatever their official status. That is a welcome reform, and a radical overhaul. It will create new rights for parents, both biological and social, grandparents, anyone in loco parentis to children and, most critically, children themselves. This Bill is about safeguarding the rights of all families, just as should be provided for in a modern, caring society.
There has been much debate and scaremongering about this legislation, which is unfounded. Let us be clear from the very start. This Bill does not commodify children. It does not undermine the right of a child to a mother and father, and it does not interrupt the natural ties between parents and children. The Bill does not do anything to reduce or limit the rights of natural parents. It is putting in context a new framework.
It is important to note at the outset that there is no right, under domestic or international law, for a person to adopt a child. A person may adopt as a sole applicant in a process of consideration. In determining the application of a sole applicant, it is not permissible to discriminate on the basis of the potential adopter's sexual orientation. It must be pointed out, also, that every application is assessed based on the best interests of the child. None of us can adopt automatically. It must be in the best interests of the child, not the person or persons seeking to adopt. That point has been lost in the debate.
What is the story with adoption in Ireland today? In the ten years between 2004 and 2013 there were 3,832 applications for declarations of eligibility and suitability. Of those, 94% were from married couples, only 6% were from sole or single applicants, and only two of those single applicants were men. When it comes to inter-country adoptions, over the period 2003 to 2014, 3,460 of these were registered in Ireland. Of those, 3,286 adoptions were to married couples and 179 were to single applicants. Of those 179 single applicants, 178 were women. Despite the fact that under Irish law as it stands today, gay and lesbian people are eligible to apply to adopt on their own, just like any adult in this country, the number of single applicants is very small.
There is an opportunity as this Bill progresses to raise awareness about what already happens under Irish law. In Ireland currently, lesbian and gay people can apply to be considered for adoption on the same grounds as any other person in the State. Lesbian and gay couples are fostering successfully, and they are playing a pivotal role in that regard. We sometimes see young children from challenging backgrounds being fostered in a caring and loving home and being made feel very welcome. Lesbian and gay couples are raising their children in Ireland today. That is the reality. It did not just happen yesterday or last week. It is happening in every village and town across our country. Those lesbian and gay men and women who are parents will still be parents regardless of this Bill, but the Bill will ensure that the children in these families have equal legal rights.
Currently, a lesbian or gay person can apply to be considered for adoption but a lesbian and gay couple are not allowed to apply jointly, even if they are in a civil partnership. That is a gap in the law which has not caught up with the passing of civil partnership legislation, and which this Bill will address. This law ensures that the guiding principle of the adoption process is what is in the best interest of the child. No matter who is allowed to apply to be considered for adoption, this principle will remain. The main point will be what is in the best interests of the child. I worry when I hear some opponents of the Bill talking about watering down that principle and inserting preferred options, regardless of what is in the best interest of the child. Those proposals are leading to scaremongering tactics, which are not helping this debate. The proposals by opponents of the Bill are profoundly worrying and would lead to outcomes that are not in the best interests of the child. For example, if a lesbian or gay couple have fostered a child long-term and that child becomes eligible for adoption, surely it would be in the best interests of the child for that couple to be allowed to apply to adopt him or her.
In 2012, a Northern Ireland High Court judge held that an outright ban on adoption by civil partners and unmarried couples in Northern Ireland infringed the European Convention on Human Rights, and that while single gay people could potentially adopt, a civil partner could not adopt jointly or even as an individual. He concluded that this was contrary to the convention.
Under the Bill, civil partners are to be permitted to adopt children jointly, and it is proposed that the same criteria be applied to them as to married couples. While the Adoption Act 2010 allows adoption by a sole applicant, joint adoption is only possible where the adopters are married to each other. While in principle there is nothing to prevent a person who is a civil partner or a person who is gay or lesbian from adopting as a sole applicant, it is not possible for civil partners to adopt jointly.
If adoption is about the best interests of the child, we should place that above the marital status or sexual orientation of the potential adoptive parents. We must continue to ensure that the primary and overriding consideration in determining whether an adoption should be facilitated is whether the adoption serves to advance the welfare of the child. This is about providing a loving, caring home for a child. It is about providing a place where children can grow and prosper, be equipped with the necessary skills and be taught values to allow them reach their potential in a world that can pose many challenges. The changes that are being introduced will allow children to be adopted into homes and families that are founded upon committed, loving and stable relationships. To me, that is always a positive thing.
Assisted human reproduction, AHR, is an advance of our modern world that has allowed a great many families in this area to enjoy and celebrate the gift of a child or children, but sometimes that simple and extraordinary fact is lost when people publicly debate the issue. It is regrettable that Ireland is one of the few countries that has not yet legislated and regulated for the reality of AHR. Every year approximately 3,000 babies are born in Ireland as a result of IVF and other high-tech interventions. That is a reality, and it is occurring every day without a proper legal framework. While the medical aspect of AHR is covered by medical ethics and practices, the legal aspects have been ignored. As a Legislature and as a society, we have failed to openly face up to and address that reality.
It is more than a decade since the then Government set up a Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction. That commission was to advise on how the area could be regulated. It is now over six years since that group reported but since then, despite promises, nothing has happened.
This was a failure of politics to address the desires of so many families, men and women, citizens of our State. It was a failure to support them in their quest to have children.
In this Bill the Minister is proposing to put an end to anonymous donation for AHR. The idea behind this is that every child should have access to his or her genetic identity. Ideally this should be the case, but there are related issues that we should take into account. We must look at how our laws interact with those of other countries. How do our laws affect what is already happening here or what has already happened? How will our laws affect access by people who want to be mothers and fathers to the benefits of technology in helping them to have a family?
In Ireland today there is virtually no embryo donation using sperm or eggs donated in Ireland. I understand that it occurs in a handful of cases, usually involving family members or friends. Sperm and egg donations are mostly from Denmark and Ukraine, where donation is or can be anonymous. People who travel for egg donation go to Spain or the Czech Republic, where donation is anonymous. I ask the Minister and her officials to examine this as we progress the Bill through the House. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, I received correspondence from and had meetings with members of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who have raised this issue with me. I am not in a position to make their evaluation, but I hope we can examine their concerns and address them on either Committee Stage or Report Stage. The last thing we want to have is unwanted or unintended consequences. There are also concerns about the impact of these changes on women and families who have already commenced the process of using AHR. We should carefully consider the timelines in facilitating people to continue with something that has already started.
Concerns have been raised with me about how different couples might be treated under the changes proposed by this Bill, and the retrospective application of presumptions regarding parentage. It has been suggested to me that, for example, a lesbian couple using AHR would have to apply to court for both women to be named as parents, but for a heterosexual couple this would be facilitated automatically. Perhaps this is something the Minister might clarify in her reply to this debate. The Bill is about creating families, and I hope that arbitrary distinctions between couples can be avoided. The legal structures we are putting in place concerning AHR are long overdue. All people, whatever their views on AHR, should welcome the fact that regulations are finally being put in place.
This Bill does not undermine the traditional marital family. It is putting in place legal structures to support and protect the various forms of family and the blended families that are part of today's Ireland. It is not about taking away rights or supports. It is about ensuring that these supports are available to all families. The Bill is not about replacing or usurping biological parents. It is about putting in place custody and guardianship arrangements that take account of the diverse family arrangements that exist in Irish society today. It is not taking away the company and care given to children by biological parents. It is putting in place structures so that in situations in which children are cared for, loved and supported by someone other than, or in addition to, a genetic parent, that person and the child's dependence on and relationship with that person are legally supported and protected.
Children have the right to an identity in terms of culture and family, and also genetically. This Bill is safeguarding all of those aspects. In cases of assisted human reproduction, it is explicitly providing that in this country every child will have access to information about who their genetic parents are. This is not about hiding from anything or about sweeping reality under the carpet. It is about facing reality and providing structure for what is already happening.
I will briefly refer to the marriage equality referendum which will be held in May. I am doing this to explicitly state that it is distinct and separate from this Bill. Whatever one's views on the referendum, I appeal to those commenting on or opposing this legislation to remember that the Bill before us is important and requires and merits our separate attention.
We need to address the issues of identity, parenting and assisted human reproduction, as well as putting in place legal structures to support all forms of family. The issues we are debating today are important to those outside the House who are listening to the debate and watching how we vote. The Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation we will pass in the lifetime of this Dáil. These issues have a much wider implication; they do not just pertain to same-sex couples. They are equally, if not more, relevant to opposite-sex, heterosexual couples. Primarily, this is about catering for relationships between men and women. These relationships form the vast majority of relationships that exist outside our current definition of marriage. After this Bill is passed and after the referendum, the provisions of this Bill will affect every heterosexual couple. It is they who make up the majority, and they want to see this Bill enacted.
I feel privileged to be able to support this legislation. Without wishing to sound patronising, I am proud that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, was the first Minister with responsibility for children at Cabinet. She has brought this Bill before us, and it cannot be undermined in any shape or form by those who try to oppose, obfuscate and confuse. This is about affording protection to children under our laws, and that is why the legislation is so important. If we are to take Maslow's hierarchy of needs, whereby we all begin by seeking safety and move towards finally reaching self-actualisation, this Bill fits those criteria.
I hope every citizen will be proud of the Oireachtas for enacting this Bill. It is long overdue and absolutely necessary. The lives of our citizens are complex, but this child-centred Bill will give certainty in dealing with the lives of those in many different forms of family. I commend the Bill to the House.