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Children, and the 8th amendment debate

The eight amendment debate has been vitriolic, and thus far raw emotion, intolerance, hysterical claims, and a lack of insight into opposing views have formed the entire premise on which to argue ones ‘cause’. Just a number of weeks ago, as I walked down Patrick Street in Cork, I observed a ‘prolife’ lobby group displaying the now all too familiar gruesome imagery, that their propaganda machine deems appropriate to exhibit. It was a Saturday afternoon, at prime time trading hours, on one of the busiest thoroughfares in Cork; their position ensured they had the capacity to engage a critical mass of families. Somewhat astonishingly, the group’s obliviousness to the damage such imagery could have on a child’s emotional well being only became apparent to me when I pointed out this fact directly to them. They weren’t for turning. Unfortunately, the ironic disregard for children’s well being in this current debate is nothing new. In the past week, I have observed children holding placards at protests representing both sides of the debate. As disparate as these two groups of protesters believe they are, they appear to share common ground; their disregard for the innocent children they expose to such an emotionally charged, contentious and adult orientated debate. 

It is crucial that I emphasise at this point that children and young people have a huge role to play in social debates and movements. In the past number of years, I have watched with keen interest as children and young people in the US, Netherlands, Pakistan and India, to name but a few, have initiated legal actions against their respective governments, due to their perceived negligence with respect to climate change and environmental issues. Just in the past number of weeks, school students across the United States staged collective walkouts, in response to mass shootings, and the ease of access to guns across the US. Both the NRA, and certain political elements within the US, have exacerbated the anger which fueled these walkouts, by not only refusing to engage in any debate around the second amendment, but in the demeaning tone they adopted in their responses to the voices of children and young people who survived these gun attacks, whose only wish is to have safer schools and a safer world. Both of these mobilisations serve to illustrate the power of our youth, how their voices should and must be respected, and just how pivotal their involvement is in achieving political and social change. 

Notwithstanding the contribution to society that children and young people can make, I believe there is a collective awareness that children, and young people to a lesser degree, deserve protection from unfettered access to the world around us, and all it’s constitute parts. Most recently in Ireland, this is epitomised in the ongoing debate around the access that our children and young people have to smart phones and the Internet. In having this awareness, we accept that negative experiences, imagery and social interactions can have a hugely traumatic effect on children. It is important in the context of this knowledge that we recognise that not all movements, debates or protests are made equally. Taking a child to Pride, or to a religious gathering, in order to instill values in them is one thing. Placing an eight year old at the front line of a debate on abortion, and willingly exposing them to all the sights, sounds and realities that the front line holds is something quite different. Regard for a child’s wishes within our family court system is based on their “age and understanding”. Perhaps it is time for all lobby groups and activists to consider the age and understanding of the children whom they thrust on to the front lines of their chosen battles.

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