Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks
The European Commission is expected on Wednesday to back proposals urging private companies to aim for 40% female company directors by 2020, and by 2018 for state-owned companies. These proposals ultimately leave it to national governments to determine how this will be enforced, after the Commission failed to clear a more stringent proposal three weeks ago.
The previous proposal, headed by Viviane Reding of Luxembourg, sought binding quotas to be imposed on member states, with penalties for non-compliance. This was the first time under their current president that the Commission has been unable to agree on a piece of draft legislation. Opponents included a number of the most prominent women commissioners, as well as leading businesswomen such as Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, who branded quotas ‘dangerous’.
Maria Miller, UK Culture Secretary and Women and Equalities Minister, criticised the new proposals as patronising to women. She argued that the UK’s voluntary measures have been successful, with 44% of board appointments in the past 6 months being women. Miller also argued that the removal of barriers to achieving women’s goals in all levels of business should be a priority, and indeed, a recent study by Talking Talent shows that a rigid career structure and lack of flexibility seem to be women’s primary obstacles to progression in the workplace.
In the judiciary…
We have a new bid in what is fast becoming a favourite parlour game among members of the legal profession: how long will it be until we have a diverse judiciary? The latest guesstimate, offered by Lord Sumption in a Bar Council lecture at Inner Temple earlier this week, is 50 years. Though this is somewhat more optimistic than the 100 years suggested by Alan Paterson and Chris Paterson in their superb ‘Guarding the Guardians’ report earlier in the year (and even perhaps that of the Equality and Human Rights Commission which limited its 45 year prediction to gender parity in the senior judiciary) – on any measure this is far too long. And if, as I would argue, a diverse judiciary is a better judiciary, a judiciary better placed to apply and develop the law fairly and reasonably, we cannot afford to be complacent. Those on the appointments committee seeking to fill the three spaces on the UK Supreme Court, please take note.
The issue of Irish abortion law was reignited this week by the tragic story of Savita Halappanavar who died in hospital on Sunday 28 October after her abortion request was ‘refused’ at University Hospital Galway.
On Saturday 20 October, Savita, a 31 year old dentist from India, who was pregnant with her first child, was rushed into hospital as she was experiencing pain. She was informed that she was fully dilated and was miscarrying. Savita requested several times for her pregnancy to be terminated but was denied. Mr Halappanavar said that his wife was denied her request and told that they could not terminate the pregnancy ‘because it’s a Catholic country’ and the foetus still had a heartbeat. This was despite the fact that Mrs Halappanavar was Hindu. On Wednesday, the foetal heartbeat stopped and the foetus was removed, but by Friday Mrs Halappanavar was critically ill with septicaemia and E.coli ESBL. Mrs Halappanavar’s organs stopped functioning and she sadly died on the Sunday. Her death is now the focus of an internal investigation.
There has been much outrage following this event. It has been noted by Professor Fiona de Londras that, despite the X decision 20 years ago, which stated that a constitutional right to abortion in situations where “it is established as a matter of probability that there is a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother, which can only be avoided by the termination of her pregnancy”, successive governments have failed to give effect to this constitutional right. As such, medical professionals are not guided how to exercise their judgment on these cases and fear criminalisation. The Irish Government has an obligation to uphold this right to choose abortion in these circumstances.
On Wednesday, 2,000 protestors assembled outside the Irish Parliament in Dublin to call for the Irish government to urgently make legal changes regarding abortion. A minute’s silence was held in Mrs Halappanavar’s memory. A group of about 40 protestors also gathered outside the Irish embassy in London. It can only be hoped that the Irish government will now pay attention and will no longer delay legislation in this area.
And more from afar…
Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Uganda’s Parliament, has stated that the ‘Kill The Gays’ Bill will become law by the end of 2012. The Bill, which Kadaga referred to as a ‘christmas gift’ for Ugandans, would see homosexuality divided into two categories. The offence of ‘aggravated homosexuality’, which would cover homosexual acts committed by repeat offenders, individuals who are HIV-positive, as well as those committed by parents or authority figures, would result in the death penalty; while the ‘offence of homosexuality’ would criminalise being in a same-sex relationship or same-sex sexual acts – the sentence for which would be life imprisonment.
An online blog have used the micro-blogging service, ‘Twitter’ to encourage the Anglican Church to denounce the Bill, using the hashtag ‘#blockthebill’, while Barack Obama has referred to the Bill as ‘odious’ and the UK, along with several other European countries, have threatened Uganda with a severe reduction in financial aid if the Bill passes. While it should be commended that countries have voiced their opposition to the Bill, whether or not it will have any positive impact is unknown. While a reduction of financial aid could be an effective threat, if the Ugandan Parliament carry on and the Bill becomes law, the cut in financial aid would also affect the LGBT community of Uganda – perhaps isolating them even further.
A reported 70,000 people have taken to the streets of Paris and several other French cities to protest France’s newly approved bill which would extend marriage and adoption rights to same sex couples.
The bill, which will be debated in Parliament in January 2013, was approved by President Francois Hollande earlier this month. President Hollande stated that the bill would mean ‘progress not only for individuals but also for the whole of society’. However, the bill has split both the political leaders – with Conservative senator Serge Dassault stating that giving gay and lesbian couples the same legal status as heterosexual unions meant the “end of the family, the end of child development … an enormous danger for the entire nation” – and the population, with suggestions that public support for the measures is waning. With rallies both in support of the proposals and against them, it is clear that the passage of the bill will be tough.