Progressives around the world celebrated this weekend as Ireland voted 62 per cent in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage. This win is significant and important for a country that only decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 and has long been dominated by the misogynist, homophobic Catholic Church.
The vote signaled, to many, a shift towards a more progressive cultural, social, and political landscape.
The New York Times quoted Ty Cobb, the international director of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group, saying, “I think this is a moment that rebrands Ireland to a lot of folks around the world as a country not stuck in tradition but that has an inclusive tradition.”
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s health minister, said, “[The vote] makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world of liberty and equality. It’s a very proud day to be Irish.”
“This decision makes every citizen equal and I believe it will strengthen the institution of marriage,” Prime Minister Enda Kenny said.
But are human rights and equality really based on the right for anyone to get married? Is Ireland truly a model of “liberty and equality?” And why are progressives looking to “strengthen the institution of marriage,” anyway?
To be clear, of course I believe that so long as heterosexual couples are permitted to marry, gay and lesbian couples should also be allowed access to the same rights and privileges they have access to. What I oppose is not gay marriage, rather I oppose marriage as a whole and, more generally, I don’t believe that allowing same-sex couples to wed signals a move towards “equality.”
While support for LGBT rights is growing worldwide, women’s actual human rights remain unaddressed.
Liberals-minded folks can quite easily pat themselves on the backs for supporting the right to “equal access” to the institution of marriage without doing much of anything at all. Liberating women from male oppression, on the other hand, means those in power have to give up a lot. As Katha Pollitt wrote, in The Nation, “Marriage equality costs society nothing and takes no power away from anyone.”
In fact, gay marriage allows progressive heterosexuals feel much more at ease about their choice to join the church of wedded bliss as they can tell themselves it is no longer the old-fashioned, conservative institution of yesteryear — it’s now hip and open-minded and “inclusive.” We are all now able to forget about critiquing the institution, asking why we continue to marry at all, and why we continue to allow marriage to define our relationships and lives in such an overbearing way because we’ve so generously let the gays in.
In April, Pollitt asked why reproductive rights were “losing” while gay rights were “winning.” She pointed out that “Indiana’s attempt to enshrine opposition to gay marriage under the guise of religious freedom provoked an immediate nationwide backlash.” Meanwhile, in many states, women still don’t have access to abortions and women are even being charged with feticide for miscarrying or trying to terminate pregnancies themselves. Last month in Indiana, Purvi Patel was given a 20-year sentence for miscarrying, accused of using abortion drugs to terminate her pregnancy. In Mississippi, Rennie Gibbs, who was 16-years-old at the time, faced life in prison after she delivered a stillborn baby. Jessica Mason Pieklo wrote, for RH Reality Check that after the medical examiner decided the cause of death was “cocaine toxicity,” the grand jury concluded that Gibbs had “caused the death of the baby by smoking crack cocaine during her pregnancy.” That is to say she was facing murder charges. The charge was dismissed, but both cases represent a growing effort to criminalize pregnant women in the U.S. and a prioritization of the lives of fetuses over the lives of women.
Ending a pregnancy is still technically a criminal offence in British law (though The Abortion Act, passed in 1967, means that most women’s abortions can take place legally if certain conditions are met). Women still cannot get legal abortions in Malta, El Salvador, Chile, and The Dominican Republic. In Nicaragua the penal code criminalizes both the practitioner and the woman who gets the abortion, which has made unsafe abortion the leading cause of maternal deaths in the country.
Abortion is illegal in Ireland in all cases (including incest and rape) unless the woman’s life is in danger. Ireland’s Constitution states, in its Eighth Amendment, that “the State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
But we are to believe that marriage will create a free and equal society?
Reproductive rights allow women control over their lives. Abortion access is both a health issue and a human rights issue. We have a right not to give birth and raise children. We have the right to not put our lives at risk through pregnancy.
The reason that something like reproductive justice is still something we are fighting for while same-sex marriage is widely supported, is because abortions are for women. And women’s lives still are not of primary importance to most liberal and progressive men. Men don’t get pregnant, therefore pregnancy is not men’s problem. Marriage and the nuclear family keep women under the thumb of men and ensures we continue to give birth to and raise men’s children (and keeps women dependent on men), while reproductive rights ensure women remain independent, in many ways.
Marriage is not a progressive institution. It is an institution founded on the idea of women as property, traded among men, and it continues to be a site of oppression for women today. More than a third of women murdered around the world are killed by their partner. Domestic abuse kills more people than wars. The most progressive thing we could do would be to abolish the institution once and for all. To refuse to let our wedding day be the most important day of our lives. To refuse to perpetuate the idea that becoming a “wife” is a thing to aspire to or celebrate. To push back against the idea that the correct way to live and love and have families is within this these very restrictive parameters that devalue all relationships that are not of the “husband and wife” variety. To reject the idea that those who choose to marry should have access to rights and privileges that those who aren’t married don’t have access to.
We know that motherhood and marriage are not universally “good” for women. Pregnancy is dangerous, childcare and housework — which women continue to do the bulk of — are undervalued and unpaid, women continue to take their male partners’ names in marriage, signalling subservience and patriarchal ideals, and, of course, violence continues to be central to many women’s experiences of “wedded bliss.” Often when women leave these abusive relationships they continue to be financially, psychologically, and emotionally abused by their ex-husbands, who torture them in court by trying to take their children away from them.
The fact that lesbian and gay relationships are being acknowledged as legitimate is a good thing, no doubt. But the fact that it is marriage that defines what is and is not a legitimate relationship remains a problem. Beyond that, weddings will not lead to equality or human rights for women. They can be fun and lovely (they can also be boring, offensively lavish, and extremely sexist), but they will not end oppression.
It is women — 51 per cent of the world’s population — who remain the largest group of oppressed humans on this planet (within that, women of colour and poor women suffer inordinately under capitalist patriarchy and, not coincidentally, face the most significant barriers to safe abortions). It is women who continue to be devalued, exploited, raped, and abused, by men, because they are women, on a daily basis. One would think our humanity, equality, and rights would be of concern to those who care about things like humanity, equality, and rights. So until progressives in Ireland (and beyond) make women’s freedom a priority, I won’t be celebrating.