Marriage, gay marriage and civil partnerships
The Scottish government has launched a consultation on the issue of gay marriage, saying that its initial view was that same-sex marriage should be introduced, and that religious ceremonies for civil partnerships should no longer be prohibited. Currently, gay couples can have their partnership legally recognised by entering into a civil partnership, but the ceremonies may only be performed by civil registrars and are not permitted in places of religious affiliation.
This may have encouraged the coalition government to take up the slack, after they delayed a consultation on the same topic. March 2012 will see the launch of a consultation on reforming marriage laws, in particular to allow civil marriages (and not religious marriages), for same sex couples in England and Wales. Neither consultation, however, includes the option of allowing heterosexual couples to register for civil partnerships. While it is a good move to open up marriage for all couples in a relationship, not considering the equivalent for civil partnerships is regrettable. This serves to reinforce civil partnerships as socially inferior to marriage, and the institution of marriage – with its patriarchal and heteronormative values – as upholding the moral foundations of society. Although same-sex couples would be allowed to marry and ‘mimic’ heterosexual relationships (to a greater extent than civil partnerships), heterosexual couples would not have the option of choosing an alternative legal partnership to eschew – at least to some extent – the unequal underpinnings of the marriage contract. (See further the Equal Love Campaign, ‘the legal bid to overturn the twin bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships in the United Kingdom’.)
Reproductive Autonomy & Parenthood
MPs have voted against proposals to change the law on counselling for women who are considering an abortion, by an overwhelming majority of 368 to 118. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tabled an amendment to the health and social care bill that would introduce to women the offer of ‘the option of receiving independent’ counselling – independent in this case excluding private abortion providers, such as BPAS and Marie Stopes. This would potentially allow ‘independent’ organisations and counsellors who are influenced by pro-life and faith-based groups to provide advice. Although it is a relief that Dorries’ abortion amendment was defeated in the House of Commons, it is a concern that women’s reproductive autonomy is being threatened.
Earlier this year the anti-abortion group Life was invited to join the new sexual health forum which replaces Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV. At the same time, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – which has provided counselling for unplanned pregnancy and abortion treatment for 40 years – will not be part of the forum, even though it was a part of the previous advisory group for a number of years. In February, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service failed in a bid to secure a change in the way women complete drug-induced early abortion, which would have allowed women to take the first of two drugs needed to bring about a medical abortion at a clinic, but the second in their own home. The judge presiding over the Bpas challenge, Mr Justice Supperstone, was reluctant to interpret the law in this manner, suggesting that this was a matter primarily for Parliament, not the judiciary. (See Chantell Burrows on this, here.) Unfortunately, however, progressive steps to increase women’s reproductive freedom are not being debated in Parliament, and instead it is proposals which could limit women’s choices which are up for discussion.
Sexual and Domestic Violence
In Scotland, rape and attempted rape rose by 14% to its highest five-year point, with 1,131 cases reported. Violent crime in total has risen by 2%. Domestic housebreaking is up 5%, to 25,017. However, the overall crime rate has dropped and the Justice Secretary Mr McAskill has said ‘The statistics we have seen this year show Scotland is becoming safer — crime is down, fear of crime is down, the number of people carrying out crime is down and those who do break the law are being punished swiftly by Scotland’s justice system’. With rape as a significant exception, there is a question of for whom Scotland is becoming safer, as many women are at risk of and fear sexual violence, and perpetrators are punished only in few cases. Mr Askill did say, though, that he was concerned to see the increase in the number of reported rape complaints. And Johann Lamont MSP, said these statistics were ‘deeply troubling’ and emphasised the need to put victims ‘at the heart of the justice system’.
Brian Dempsey, who teaches at the University of Dundee has postulated that Scottish domestic violence stereotypes fail gay and transgender people. The Scottish government’s definition is: “Domestic abuse (as gender- based abuse), can be perpetrated by partners or ex-partners and can include physical abuse (assault and physical attack involving a range of behaviour), sexual abuse (acts which degrade and humiliate women and are perpetrated against their will, including rape) and mental and emotional abuse…” There is little research the rates of LGBT people who report domestic violence to police. However, al survey conducted by Stonewall in 2008, of lesbian and bisexual women found that eight in ten who had experience domestic violence to the police, and only half of those were satisfied with how officers dealt with the situation.
The Womens’ Aid Real Man Campaign is well underway and rapidly gaining momentum, with some high profile support and moving testimony from many of its ambassadors.
A report released by the Independent Police Complaints Commission has highlighted serious flaws in domestic violence case handling by the Dorset and Lincolnshire constabularies. In connection with its investigation of an incident in Dorset in which a 26 year old woman was stabbed to death by her partner in front of her three year old daughter while staying with a friend, the IPCC has issued a statement saying that the domestic violence policies of Dorset police were outdated. A second case in Lincolnshire has also been highlighted as flawed, and two police constables are facing misconduct meetings. In addition, three Metropolitan police officers have been disciplined after responding inappropriately, unprofessionally and insensitively towards two rape complainants. However, the IPCC has stated that the Met’s systems and policies have changed since the incidents, which date from 2009.
Equality and Sexuality
An interesting decision will see local councils being banned from asking their residents about their sexual orientation, marital status, religion and race. Stonewall, the gay rights charity has criticised the move, as it claims that collecting such data was necessary in order to ensure that public services were meeting the needs of all residents. (See Neil Cobb on a similar point, here.)
And a little more from afar…
The week before last, a federal judge in Texas disapplied the states new abortion law. US District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that two provisions of the states new abortion law violate first amendment rights. One of the offending provisions requires a physician who performs an abortion to order a sonogram beforehand, show the images to his patient, give her a detailed description of what the sonogram shows, and “make audible” the fetus’s heartbeat.