Snapshots of law, gender and sexuality news from the past couple of weeks.
Civil Partnerships Denied to Opposite Sex Couples
Catherine Ravenscroft, Durham University
The High Court has decided against a couple seeking judicial review to extend civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.A civil partnership is a relationship between two people of the same sex, formed when they register as civil partners of each other. It was originally intended to remedy a perceived gap in the law which denied formal legal protection to same-sex couples in long-term, committed relationships. Yet, since the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the status has been a contentious issue. Primarily, as identified by the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign, this is because same-sex couples are now perceived to be granted additional protection beyond that available to heterosexual partnerships. A same-sex couple can choose to either marry or register their civil partnership, yet a heterosexual couple is limited only to marriage.
The retention of such a system without extension to heterosexual couples is therefore seen to represent inequality in the law and has been actively challenged in the high court by Charles Keidan and Rebecca Steinfeld. However the failure of this recent challenge last week has meant that progress may potentially be stalling. The Court stated that England was under no obligation with the European Convention on Human Rights to expand civil partnership to opposite-sex couples. The judge also emphasised that the case could not be termed unjustified discrimination since it was not a situation in which legal recognition was denied to such couples. Rather, it remained open to heterosexual couples to register their relationship through marriage. Yet for those who oppose marriage on the basis of its historical, cultural and religious connotations, simply to be told itwill have to do may not be satisfactory. It certainly is not so for Keidan and Steinfeld who intend to appeal their case to a higher court.
Zika Virus Fuels Latin American Pro-Choice Movement
Emily Whelan, Durham University
The Zika virus epidemic has given rise to debate over the restrictive nature of Latin American abortion laws. It is spread primarily through mosquito bites, but can also be sexually transmitted. The World Health Organization has predicted up to 4 million cases, concentrated in a region with some of the harshest controls on abortion in the world.
The Zika virus causes microcephaly, a disease which impairs brain development in the womb, causing the child to be born with abnormally small heads. The effects are incurable and vary from child to child. Most will suffer from stunted cognitive growth, paralysis, and seizures. Life expectancy is reduced, and they are unlikely to ever achieve normal brain function.
In El Salvador, there are around 6000 suspected cases of the virus. There is also an absolute ban on abortion for any reason, enforced through draconian jail terms reaching 50 years. There is a lack of access to birth control, with El Salvador’s contraception prevalence rate standing at 70.7% (the UK’s CPR is currently at 84%), and stock outs (a shortage of contraception) are not unknown. Lack of access to birth control is highest in rural areas- the very areas where Zika carrying mosquitos are most prevalent. Furthermore, there are virtually no medical facilities in rural areas, meaning that children born with microcephaly will likely be denied the healthcare they so desperately need. The El Salvadorian government’s response has been to recommend women hold off on pregnancy until 2018, a suggestion which has been met with scorn by El Salvadorian women’s groups. They point out that over half of pregnancies in El Salvador are unplanned. Morena Herrera, president of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion, said the recommendation fails to hold men responsible, and pointed out that:
“Women don’t get pregnant alone. The access to information and to contraceptives, even though not illegal, is not totally open and many women don’t have enough information. And there are many pregnancies that are a result of violent rape – pregnancies imposed on women where they aren’t making their own decisions.”
In Brazil, the situation is similar with around 4000 suspected cases of microcephaly and abortion forbidden save in cases of rape, danger to mothers life, or if the foetus has anencephaly (a rare and fatal condition). Several groups, including lawyers, scientists and activists are collaborating on a petition to Brazil’s Supreme Court to permit abortions if the disease is detected. Debora Diniz, a law professor at Brasilia University and vice-chairwoman of Anis, a feminist group, told the BBC: “It is important to remember, when we talk about abortion and reproductive rights in general, that we have a social class split in Brazil – wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant.” They blame the Brazilian Government for failing to curtail the spread of the disease. The petition has met with strong opposition from the Catholic Church, who have decreed that ‘nothing justifies an abortion.’
The Zika virus continues to spread as similar debates rage in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guatemala, all of which have severely restrictive laws on abortion. Regardless of the outcome, the political landscape of Latin America is severely shaken up.