When Can Governments Kill?

The recent 13 hour rant by the Republican Party’s far-right Rand Paul over the drone program was met with praise by many liberals and libertarians.

It’s worth remembering what led to this speech, or filibuster. It wasn’t simply the existence or use of the drone program, which has been going on for years. What led to it was his receipt of a letter from the US Attorney General, who stated that in his legal opinion the President of the United States can authorise a drone strike against a United States citizen, on US soil, in “extraordinary circumstances”. For some reason, many libertarians and liberals seemed genuinely surprised at this statement. Cenk Uygur, widely regarded as a hero by internet liberals, said in support of the filibuster that “if you are an actual progressive or a liberal, you would find that outrageous”. He went on to say “if you don’t care about principles, and you’re not actually a progressive or a liberal, you’re just a Democrat, and you like being on team Democrat, and you like wearing the blue outfits … you’re not a principled person”.

What’s outrageous to me is how unsurprising this legal opinion should have been. For example, I’m sure they wouldn’t have found it surprising if the Attorney General said that the President had the power to order some other type of military action against US citizens on US soil under “extraordinary circumstances”. Is it really impossible to imagine what those circumstances might be? A civil war? An invasion? Lincoln did, after all, use military force against American citizens on American soil. I’m sure libertarians don’t have a problem with that, do they? But because the word ‘drones’ is used, the automatic assumption is that anything related to their use is a scary over-reaching use of power by shady Government officials. Would those who flatly oppose any use of drones prefer pilots to be put in danger by sending them needlessly into harm’s way in conventional Air Force aircraft?

Of course, the libertarian paranoia led most people to ignore the meaning of “extraordinary circumstances” and instead felt it acceptable to exaggerate the vagueness of that phrase. Following the filibuster, Senator Paul received a suitably blunt response from the Attorney General clarifying his original legal opinion; stating the President does not have the power to use a weaponised drone against an American not engaged in combat.

But putting aside the stupidity of the argument being made in the first place, there are a number of subtleties that particularly annoy me about this debate. Firstly, the use of the term “US citizen”. We’ve heard it many times this week, the discussion over whether the President should have the power to kill “US citizens” on US soil without trial. The idea that the President could order a strike against a US citizen seemed to be the main, or only, point of contention in the heads of Rand Paul and Cenk Uygur. Similarly, the biggest controversies over the use of drones in the Middle East usually arise when the targets are American-born terrorists. Again, the debate here isn’t over the casual use of surveillance drones by state police forces, or even the over-use of air-strikes in war.

If a debate about military action is going to take place, I really don’t understand why the value of lives of one nationality should be considered greater than of other nationalities. The debate shouldn’t be about when the Government has the right to take an American life, it should be about when the Government has the right to take any life. If it’s accepted that the Government, in extraordinary circumstances, has the authority to kill a foreign combatant, why is it such a stretch to accept the Government’s authority to kill another combatant, engaging in identical actions, who just happened to be born in the US? Why are they seen as two separate questions of morality?

This leads me on to my next annoyance with the debate. On Saturday, I watched a clip on Fox News of a US Congressman telling the Attorney General that he wanted to bring in a law to underline the idea that the Government never has the right to take an American life on American soil. That may sound reasonable enough to most people. But when you start to consider how it would be applied, the question coming to your mind reveals the hypocrisy of the anti-government, anti-drone argument: would such a law also outlaw the death penalty? If they really, honestly, are opposed to the idea of Government authorising the killing of a person, or a group of people, under ‘extraordinary circumstances’, then surely they must also be opposed to the idea of Government taking the life of a restrained prisoner; a person who no longer poses any risk to anyone. The recently vocal self-described civil rights champions may indeed oppose the death penalty, but the silence on the issue in comparison to a hypothetical, exaggerated image of the use of drones on US soil is noticeable.

On average in 2012, 1 person was executed every 12 days in the US. These were executions of restrained individuals, posing no harm, at the hands of various state governments. What does Rand Paul have to say about this? Very little, by the looks of it. There is nothing about it under his ‘Civil Liberties’ section of his website. Nothing about it under his ‘Sanctity of Life’ section of his website either. In fact, the only mention on his website of the death penalty system in the US is actually from his 13 hour filibuster speech, in which he says that some people occasionally question their support of the death penalty because sometimes the courts get it wrong.

But there was no hint of him believing the death penalty is morally wrong, that it’s an over-reach of government power, or that it’s even an issue at all.

So while some may continue, for one reason or another, to oppose the use of drones even in hypothetical war-like situations; the real outrage being ignored is the power of governments to take the lives of those who pose no real or perceived threat in any sense. When Rand Paul agrees, I’ll then consider taking him seriously.

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Religion and its place in our classroom

A neighbour’s religion may or may not mean a whole lot to you, but diversity in creed has presented an opportunity to divide people throughout the ages. In Northern Ireland, we have seen this division most vividly as peace walls were erected to prevent Catholics and Protestants from clashing with each other. While we did not have peace walls in the Republic, we still had a division in our schools that were often orchestrated by religious orders.

Given a great majority of the Republic’s population has always been of Roman Catholic belief, it is of little surprise that in the formative years of our State, favourable access was granted to lobby those in positions of power. We can see the effect of such lobbying within Bunreacht Na hÉireann through the wording of Article 42.1:

The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children’

We can see the constitution directly makes reference to religion as an essential element of education. Not only that, it asserts the right of the family ahead of the state in determining the form of religious education to be received. The spirit of the wording was inspired by the era in which it was drafted. But does it remain relevant today?

The ethnic mix of Ireland of 2013 has evolved substantially since 1937. With entry into the European Union and the influx of EU citizens into Irish society, not all schoolchildren will be of a Christian belief. Are we to ignore this reality and continue on as if nothing has changed since in 70 years?

What this article hopes to propose is that the teaching of religion should be on a broader basis, encompassing the various strands of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so forth. If a child could read a passage from the Koran, and then compare its message to that of a biblical passage, it would be allowed the opportunity to reason for itself what it is they truly believe in or whether they believe anything at all. Furthermore, the objectivity of religious lessons should be promoted with extra-curricular classes being provided for children whose parents wish to see a more traditional form of lesson in their respective belief. Such a concept has already been utilised by schools managed by Educate Together, an organisation that strives to achieve inclusive learning.

I do not believe that religion should be removed from the classroom. It is the manner in which it is presented that I think should be reformed. It should not be the business of schools funded by public funds to promote a particular viewpoint.

Today, our neighbours are not just Catholics and Protestants, and that is a good thing. Greater ethnic diversity leads to a maturing society, open to new ideas. If we begin this understanding of new ideas in classrooms of broad religious discussion and respect for diversity, we are on the right track to a better tomorrow. A tomorrow that can understand why Muslims believe in certain things and why Christians disagree with each other, together in the one classroom.

A few thoughts on Marriage

Yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons has turned my thoughts to the exclusive club that is “marriage”. Fundamentally marriage is discriminatory. But bizarrely a wide ranging group of people, including those that have spent years fighting against discrimination still want to be a part of it. Why?

Understandably those who fight for marriage equality (including myself) believe that the current situation that marriage is between one man and one woman is discriminatory towards same sex couples. But is it not also true to say that marriage, by its very definition in Irish law, is discriminatory. For under Irish law, those in a marriage are entitled to certain tax breaks which single people are not.  Those in a marriage also form the ideal “family”. While other relationships may form a “de facto” family, they are not afforded the strong protection of Article 41 of the Constitution. Consequently other forms of families are frequently seen as “less legitimate” in the courts and in the eyes of the state.

It is true to say that many people are moving away from the traditional marriage scenario in recent years. However for many who chose not to pursue this traditional family structure, the state has intervened and foisted it upon them in the form of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010. Under section 172, two individuals living together who are not related or already married are deemed to be cohabitants once specific criteria are satisfied. This gives cohabitant couples many of the legal rights of married couple under the law.  Should the state intrude on the lives of citizens in this way? Should an individual qualify for certain treatment without their explicit consent particularly in such a private sphere as the inner workings of the family?

From my own personal experience, I grew up in a house with both my biological parents who are unmarried but who are a couple. They made a conscious choice not to be married, a decision thought-out and arrived at together. Yet they find themselves in a legal situation nearly identical to a married couple, minus a piece of paper and two rings. They chose not to be in a marriage, and yet the result is a “nearly-marriage”; undoubtedly a strange conception which neither partner consented to.

Marriage also discriminates against those of us that are not married nor have been living with a partner for a certain period of time. As a single person, I do not get the same tax breaks as a married person.  My individual rights are not considered under Article 41, only my rights as a member of my family. In the context of benefits, it is clear that marriage is not only discriminatory against couples but also discriminatory against single people.

Therefore, perhaps there is a larger question to the current debate on marriage; should we continue to advance the cause of an institution that is by its very nature discriminatory? Evidently same sex couples do not wish to be discriminated against by this institution and hence we have the fight for marriage equality. My question is should we continue to fight against an institution which is clearly discriminatory against everybody except two people, one man and one woman?

Legislating for the ‘X’ Case

Since the death of Savita Halappanavar became public knowledge, the issue of abortion in Ireland has not been far from the front of the country’s political debate. Over the last week, the Oireachtas Joint Committee for Health and Children heard from legal and medical experts, as well as advocacy groups representing both the pro-choice and pro-life campaigns, in advance of the government’s promised legislation for the X Case.

How the issue of suicide as a threat to the life of the mother should fit into the legislation emerged as the most contentious point of discussion for both the politicians and external speakers. The contribution from the psychiatrists was probably the most important part of the hearings in this respect; however, it appears there was no consensus from these doctors on how legislating for such events would pan out in practice.

It is perhaps under this uncertainty that pro-life–inclined TDs and Senators felt the need to question if legislating for the X Case would open the ‘floodgates’ of abortion on demand. The doctors and psychiatrists responded that it would not, but the pro-life advocates, who spoke at the hearings, insisted that allowing for suicide would open these metaphorical floodgates. Indeed, Bishop Jones who spoke for the Catholic Church did not believe any legislation was necessary and resorted to criticising the Supreme Court ruling having even been made. He believed there should be another referendum to amend the constitution and overturn the ruling, such as the ones that was already attempted in both 1992 and 2002 and defeated.

The fight over how to include suicide in the legislation is indicative of the problem of abortion in Ireland. The concern of politicians, that enacting such a law may open the ‘floodgates’ to abortion is unfounded. But this does not address the real problem in this debate. To extend the metaphor used to the point of cliché over the last week, keeping the floodgates closed will not solve the problem as the river has already well and truly burst its banks. Hundreds of women travel from Ireland to the United Kingdom every year to seek abortions and, as Dr. Anthony McCarthy (one of Ireland’s only three perinatal psychiatrists) explained, even after legislating for the X Case they will continue to do so.

Ireland and Malta are the two countries in the European Union where women cannot practically access an abortion, often even when their lives are endangered. The government here is moving towards legislation to allow for abortion in the rarest of cases where the mother’s life is in danger, but this will not solve the problem. Hundreds of Irish women will continue to go to Britain to seek assistance, while those in the Irish political system will continue to ignore this fact.

The influence of the state in our lives is one of the key issues at the heart of liberalism and on the issue of abortion in Ireland; the state is restricting the liberty of its citizens. As Mark O’Meara put forward in the Forum’s previous post on this issue, such decisions should be made in a personal capacity, not left to the state.

It is time for Ireland to liberalise its laws beyond the recommendations of the X Case decision and allow for the choice to rest with the woman.

Marriage, Gay Couples and Children

Later this year, the Constitutional Convention will consider gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry. It is likely that they will recommend constitutional change, which would require a referendum. We don’t know when this will be but with this video from the Iona Institute the debate is heating up. They are following a tried and tested method that has been successful elsewhere: focusing on children.

There are two premises in this video. One is that marriage is mainly about children. The other is that it naturally follows from sexual reproduction that children should be raised by a mother and a father (or that kids should have a mum and a dad, as they like to put it).

These views restrict us to a much narrower definition of the reason for marriage than we are used to.

Let’s say two people marry who are past child-bearing age. We see this as undoubtedly a good thing for them. It is so obvious as to not need explanation that it’s a a good thing that they have someone to care for during the rest of their lives. We don’t think of them as being any less married because they don’t have children. Similarly with a couple who are infertile and don’t decide to adopt or seek assisted reproduction, or a couple who simply decide not to have children.

gaycake The traditional marriage vows are familiar to us all. Even if churches are working under the assumption of a heterosexual marriage, they provide an insight into what we think marriage is fundamentally for. It is primarily to each other that the couple pledge themselves on that day. Both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland use the celebrated vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”. Interestingly, in the Catholic service, it explicitly provides that the clause in the introductory remarks relating to children can be omitted if the couple are advanced in years. This shows an understanding of marriage where children, if they arise, are an important part, but that the marriage itself is whole and as fundamental where they do not.

Though the video acknowledges in an aside that there are married couples without children, for any couple getting married, their own commitment is not just an aside. The benefits to children is something that naturally follows from the broader value in the commitment of a couple. And it follow naturally from the dissipation of prejudice towards gay relationships we have thankfully seen over recent decades that the law would recognise them equally.

Their second premise is that because every child has a biological mother and father, they should be raised by a man and a woman. This does not follow. In most instances, it is the biological mother and father of a child who rear them. But there are many instances where this is not the case, whether because of adoption, a new relationship or because of assisted reproduction. There is no reason to believe that the biological division of the sexes in procreation need necessarily be reflected in the later upbringing of the child. It may be understandable why someone might have that preconception, given the families we see around, but it does not stand to scrutiny. There is no research to show that being raised by a same-sex couple negatively affects children, and the question has been studied over many years.

Of course biology matters to many people’s sense of identity. Often people who were adopted show an interest later in life in finding their biological families, without a necessary prejudice to the families who raised them. But this is an entirely separate matter to whether two men or two women should be considered as parents in seeking to adopt or secure assistive reproduction, just as a man and a woman would be. And these circumstances in no way detract from the value in a married man and woman raising their own children in a committed relationship.

Where to from here then? Contact your local public representatives, particularly if they are on the Constitutional Convention, and talk to them about why being able to marry matters for all couples. This is important to ensure a strong support from the Convention for equal marriage, and then subsequently ensure a vibrant and vigorous campaign at a political level.

After that though, the campaign won’t be won by political parties, but through hundreds of conversations across the country, in every constituency, with friends, family and colleagues, about the nature of marriage. A growing number of countries now allow same-sex couples to marry, with clearly positive results them and their families. We need to appreciate how messages such as this one from the Iona Institute are carefully designed to target specific concerns and preconceptions, and craft a bold and confident campaign, that will be positive and inclusive.

The European Presidency and Us

The first of January 2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the European Union. It also heralded the beginning of our six month term in the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Every six months a new Member State takes charge of the Presidency of, arguably, the most powerful political institution in the European Union. Over the course of the Presidency Irish Minsters will chair the Council Meetings relevant to their department (with the exception of Foreign Affairs which will continue to be chaired by the High Representative Catherine Ashton). It offers a number of opportunities to the Irish government. Firstly, it gives a certain level of prestige to Irish delegations to EU meetings over the next six months, adding no small amount of weight to their arguments. Secondly, countries in the Presidency enjoy a certain degree of agenda setting powers allowing them to prioritise a number of particular issues they wish to pursue.

The Irish Presidency will likely see two major issues overshadow much of its activities.

Due to British intransigence, the EU budget for the 2014-2020 period has yet to be agreed upon. It will be incumbent upon the Irish government to broker some manner of agreement so as to ensure that the European Institutions are adequately provided for from 2014 onwards. No one wants to see the decision held off until the Lithuanian Presidency. Asides from the problems from agreeing to such an extensive and complex budget but a few months before it comes into effect, this is Lithuania’s first presidency and their ability to steer such a delicate negotiation is questioned by some.

The second major issue is of course the need for a European level response to the financial and economic crises the Union currently faces. With the single currency in jeopardy and a number of economically weaker Member States (such as Greece) in political and social turmoil, it is important that some manner of approach is agreed upon over the course of the Irish Presidency. The next six months will see the very nature of the European economy re-evaluated in light of the ongoing crises. The Irish Presidency gives the Irish voice a significant voice at the negotiating table as the future reform and development of the European Union is mapped out in the next six months.

Daunting as these issues may seem, it should be noted that the Irish Presidencies have yielded great results in the past. The 1990 Irish Presidency oversaw the incorporation of a newly reunified Germany into the then European Community. The 2004 Irish Presidency oversaw the successful accession of ten new member states, the EU’s largest single enlargement, including Lithuania who will succeed Ireland in the Council Presidency in June.

A successful performance by the Irish government in brokering agreement in these issues will benefit the Irish position immeasurably when it comes to renegotiating debt and the bailout package. It would also put a notable emphasis upon the Irish argument on how the European economy should emerge from the crisis more generally. Ireland showcasing its ability to take the lead in Europe would rightfully reclaim our place at the heart of Europe and keep us on the right side of any centre-periphery debate. It affords the Irish government an opportunity to get their voice amplified at the discussion table at a time when change and reform are the watchwords of European politics.

The Irish Presidency offers even more concrete opportunities outside of these overshadowing economic issues. The Council, as part of the EU’s unique joint executive system, maintain the power of long term strategic planning for the EU. An 18 month plan has been broadly agreed upon to cover the periods of the Irish, Lithuanian and Greek Presidencies and bring us to June 2014. Within this overarching framework, the Irish government has considerable discretion to prioritise a number of key issues they value highly.

The Irish Government has expressed five priorities for its presidency:

  1. Economic and institutional stability
  2. Tackling youth unemployment
  3. Promoting the digital economy
  4. Focus on efficiently utilising our natural resources
  5. Pushing for more international trade agreements

By pushing its particular priorities the Irish Government is able to edge the development of the European Union towards its own vision of what the European that emerges from the crisis should look like. It places the interests of small nations like ourselves at the forefront of the European agenda.

Abortion: A Question of Balancing Rights

Abortion in Ireland is once again in the spotlight. As the pro-choice movement finally has motivation and resolve on its side, this could be the start of some real change. No doubt a significant portion of the protesters over recent weeks won’t stop at legislation being brought in for the X-Case and will attempt to turn the recent public awakening into a fight-back against Youth Defence and other far-right organisations; organisations who have so far been successful in limiting the conversation about abortion in this country to one side shouting “life” and the other side shouting “choice”.

For those who want to fight back against the tactics used by Youth Defence, there is a knee-jerk reaction to join the other side and make the “choice” chant that little bit louder. In reality, however, a step back from the passion and anger will reveal that both sides have been working hard to increase their volume without any real effort to increase, or create, any substance to their argument.

Abortion is a difficult topic. No amount of science or religion will ever provide a definitive answer to what essentially is an emotive, personal, moral question. But despite that, we need to realise that one side campaigning for the right to life, while the other side campaigns for the right to choose, ignores what the debate is really about. The debate is not about upholding the right to life or the right to choose, it is about balancing those rights. Progress in reforming our abortion laws will be painfully slow until that reality is recognised.

We all know subconsciously that it’s a balancing act between these rights, even if we don’t want to acknowledge it. Ask anyone who considers themself pro-choice if they would be comfortable with abortion being made legal unconditionally in just the hours or days after conception, and the response of ‘yes’ will be given without pause. Yet if you ask the same person if they would be comfortable with legal, unconditional abortion in the minutes before the foetus is to be born, I assure you that even in the unlikely situation that they say ‘yes’, it will be with significant hesitation. Clearly, the argument that “a woman should have the right to choose” is not a definitive answer to any or all opposition to abortion in every case.

On the other side of the debate, we’re told that abortion is the deliberate killing of a baby and therefore should never be tolerated. This argument also relies on us ignoring what we’re already subconsciously aware of: the fact that defining the beginning of life is not a black-and-white issue. If we are to believe the pro-life movement, life begins at the very instant of conception. Even still, I don’t believe playing with semantics to pin-point an exact moment that life begins is even relevant to the debate. What’s relevant to the debate is the question “when does the foetus become a being that over-rules a woman’s right to end the pregnancy?”

At the 1982 Fine Gael Ard Fheis, delegates were told by then Minister for Justice Jim Mitchell that “the right to life precedes all other rights. It is greater than the sum of all other rights, for if life is gone then all other rights have no further meaning”. This is a patently untrue statement. If the right to life is greater than the sum of all other rights, governments would not be spending money to fulfil the right to education, for example. Every cent would be put into health in order to keep people alive. If money was taken out of education and put into health, undoubtedly more lives would be saved, but at the cost of the right to education being taken away from many others. Museums, parks, libraries and the cleaning of roads include other areas where government money is spent instead of health. The right to life needs to be, and always has been, balanced with every other right to ensure a certain quality of life.

Again, we’re back to determining when a foetus’s right to life over-rules a woman’s right to choose. For me, the consciousness of the foetus is a key factor in determining if an abortion is still acceptable. Consciousness is not easily definable, but it’s a method we use every day to decide what rights should be assigned to a living thing. We can see this through our animal rights laws; no one is going to blink if a human causes harm to living animals with the lowest level of consciousness, such as a worm; but as we move upwards through animals with higher levels of consciousness, it becomes less acceptable to inflict any kind of harm. We would not accept a human inflicting the kind of harm onto a dog that may be acceptable to inflict onto a worm. While it may seem cold-hearted to compare the rights of a foetus to the rights of animals, consciousness is a measurement we use all the time to determine the level of protection afforded to a living thing.

Essentially, once a foetus gets to the stage of actually being aware of its own existence, of being able to process some sort of thoughts, of being able to consciously react to the environment around it, that’s when we should consider that its right to live is of greater value than a woman’s right to have an abortion. We can’t strictly define when a foetus reaches such a stage of development. It is clear that it has reached this stage in the days or weeks immediately before birth; but, it is also clear that it has not reached this stage in the days or weeks immediately after conception. It’s the grey area between these two clearly defined stages that should be the subject of the abortion debate; of when we decide that the right to life of the foetus starts to over-rule the right of a woman to do what she wants with her own body.

At the moment, however, Ireland’s abortion laws consider a woman to be nothing more than an incubator for potential human life to grow in, without a say in what actually happens to her body. This needs to end. We need to stop exporting our women’s rights to England, and the subject of abortion needs to be discussed with substance and without the scaremongering, self-righteousness and religious fanaticism that have dominated the debate until now. While the right to life of a foetus always needs to be considered, it’s time we also considered a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body.