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Redefining marriage

I will pay Richard Waghorne credit for taking the time to respond to so many of the responses, my own included, to his column in the Irish Daily Mail on Tuesday against same-sex marriage (though as a pointer for his relatively new blog, it is blogging etiquette to link back to articles quoted).

There is a recurring theme in his responses which I would like to respond further to. He takes any admission of a benefit of marriage to children as a concession that it has no further primary purpose, and that any other purpose to marriage can only undermine the benefit to children.

I would put the case that with this it is in fact Richard who is attempting to redefine marriage by presenting a far narrower definition than we are commonly accustomed to thinking of. Outside of this particular debate, it is not asserted that marriage exists solely for the benefit of children. Had that been the case, one could imagine a scenario where none of the legal recognition for marriage kicked in until the birth of a couple’s first child.

Richard addressed the question of infertile couples (in rebuttal 3). One of his arguments was that it would be intrusive, suggesting that if there were an non-intrusive way of determining fertility, there would be less of an issue in denying such couples the right to marry.What is more to the point is that no one thinks twice but that older couples can marry, where the woman is over 40. As a class of couples, they are around as likely to raise children as gay couples. Of course it would not be a biological child of the gay couple, but the same is true of those who adopt. And there are those who are so much older even than that. Without appealing to a Biblical miracle as in the case of Abram and Sarai, there is no reason on Richard’s grounds for such couples to be allowed to marry. We don’t think they’re taking advantage of the system, that it’s something that should only exist for those planning to raise children. What of others we know won’t raise children, like Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford, who married in Kilmainham Gaol days before he was executed for his part in the 1916 rising? Theirs was a marriage that couldn’t have tended towards child-raising. Society does see wider benefits to marriage than for the sake of children alone, and we shouldn’t start pretending otherwise now.

Our common view of marriage is as something that strengthens all bonds of family life. By confining the focus to the benefits to children, Richard is undermining the benefits to the adults (which in many cases in turn are the crux of why marriage does provide a good environment for children). Even viewed in this encompassing fashion, marriage is still an institution which provides a good environment for children, and Richard has not shown how allowing gay couples to marry changes that. What actual negative impact does he predict? He should be clearer on this, why does he believe children will be worse off, in what situations will decisions be made against them on the basis of this. Is his perception of the need for marriage to be tied to procreation enough to continue to deny the children being raised by gay couples the same Constitutional protection as in other families, or the ability of two lesbian women to be legally considered as married wives?

Richard talks of where the burden of proof lies in terms of the impact on children, claiming that it lies with those proposing a change. I would argue that it lies with the conservatives in this case. Given that we now recognize that society was wrong to have criminalized homosexual behaviour and to have widely discriminated against gay people, any remaining aspects of discrimination deserve particular scrutiny. Richard and others presenting a similar case should be able to present a clear compelling harm if they want us to accept that this discrimination is justified.

I know gay people who wish to get married because they want to raise children, and want them to have full protections. I would be surprised if Richard has not also met people who would put a similar case. What is his answer to them?

Last year in the United States District Federal Court in California, in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, equality advocates were successful in seeking to rule unconstitutional Proposition 8, which had in 2008 banned same-sex marriage in California. It was a high-profile case because of the legal team for the plaintiffs, which included the counsel for both Bush and Gore in Bush v. Gore. A courtroom debate differs from the broader political debate, where on a campaign trail, in parliament or in the media, because evidence is presented, and witnesses examined until counsel are satisfied. Under such conditions, those against equality could present little or no evidence to support their position. A single reputable survey from anywhere in the world that showed that children raised by a man and a woman fared better than those raised by a same-sex couple would have done. But they had none. Richard addresses me specifically because I omit any reference to a benefit to having both a mother and a father. I do so only because it had not been shown that there is one, counter-intuitive as that might seem to some.

To my mind then, this narrow redefinition of marriage seems constructed to exclude gay couples, as if determined to find a reason to oppose a change.

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  1. Richard W
    11 April, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    This all turns on whether you believe that a child having a mother and father who stay together is a good thing and something that should be encouraged. You make it clear that you disagree and don’t take cognisance of the wealth of social science literature from several decades showing that children raised in marriages which stay together have better life outcomes than every other family form measured. (I’m going to have to post on the social science situation vis-a-vis same-same couples because people seem to imagine that these are somehow the one exception, but I’ll do so later in the week.)

    I find the implication that the case I outline is somehow arrived at by working backwards to a definition of marriage that excludes gay people bizarre, as if belief in the special value of both a mother and a father is prompted by ideology rather than common sense.

    Incidentally, proponents of gay marriage should be aware that their insistence that there is no special benefit to both motherhood and fatherhood in the raising of a child is something that the public at large finds much harder than they do to accept, for very good reasons I believe. Public reluctance concerning gay marriage, as distinguished from civil partnerships, is not latent homophobia but justifiable nervousness about the cavalier way in which that specific claim is made. (I am not talking solely or even particularly about the Irish situation but rather what is generally so where this debate has been had.)

    Not quite sure what the ‘blogging etiquette’ pointer about linking to things is in aid of. My website is billed not as a blog but a repository of articles mostly published elsewhere but in any case I linked back to all responses discussed where they were publicly available online, including your own.

    • William
      11 April, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      Richard, I’m not averse to social science literature, whatever it might conclude. If you can show evidence that children raised by a mother and a father fare better than those raised by two mothers or two fathers, I will consider it. Evidence showing that they are better off in marriage is not enough, because it is begging the question. I think children being raised by gay couples would be better off if their parents could marry; the research you cite showing that children are better when raised in marriages seems only to corroborate that.

      If such research does exist, the defence in Perry had a very poor legal team. I shouldn’t base it all on one case, bit the stakes there were high.

      I acknowledged that it could seem counter-intuitive that a child’s two parents don’t need to be a man and a woman for it to fare well, I did not claim it was because of any latent homophobia. But in a public policy discussion, we have to deal with facts, not instincts and general perception. Which is why I do welcome what research you might have on how a child adopted by a married man and woman would fare better than one adopted by two married women.

      In claiming that it seems like your case was made by reverse, I simply mean that you made a decision to determine what could be wrong with making a change, a conservative approach I wouldn’t take, but which I can see why one might do, as a check against undue haste in policy decisions.

      As to blogging etiquette, that is perhaps the one thing above that would have been better had I mentioned it directly to you (perhaps I’m guilty on etiquette here myself now). It just seem strange that you had plain-text URLs, rather than hyperlinks, the latter allowing for greater interaction and conversation. For example, I’m not sure where you did see the link to my follow-up, but I was sure you would see it because of linked back to you. But if, as you say, your site is more of a collection if articles than a blog, fair enough.

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