Saturday, November 25, 2006

Why Marriage?

There have been a few responses to yesterday's post on marriage in a post-Lawrence world. The point of the post wasn't to debate the virtues and vices of marriage versus homosexual marriage, but to show that there are a variety of issues revolving around changing the definition of marriage that should be discussed and debated in the press. Unfortunately, given the political leanings of the press, we're unlikely to get anything that remotely resembles such a discussion.

Poster Jesurgislac pointed to this discussion at Pandagon, which is more about polygamy than same sex marriage. I actually agree with Amanda about polygamy as an abusive relationship with a lot of inequality of benefits and responsibilities. Those inequalities wouldn't be solved by making polygamy legal, and legalizing multiple-marriage would really twist family law in a knot trying to determine rights and responsibilities for all partners.

Of course, I disagree with her about same sex marriage (that would be a given, right?). I disagree mainly because I'm one of those people who doesn't buy the "marriage is about two people loving each other" argument. In a modern era where most people seem to be maily concerned with their own happiness and instant gratification, I can see why people would think marriage is just another flavor of ice cream.

But personal happiness isn't the reason the state sanctions marriage. Children are the reason we have legal marriage in the first place. After all, anybody can and (according to some) should have sex whenever they want. Marriage is about providing the best environment for having and raising children who will become stable, productive members of society.

Maggie Gallagher had an article in 2003 (before the Massachusetts high court found a gay marriage right in their constitution) discussing what marriage is for and why heterosexual marriage is important. Children, naturally, is the overarching reason.

The scholarly consensus on the importance of marriage has broadened and deepened; it is now the conventional wisdom among child welfare organizations. As a Child Trends research brief summed up: "Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents."

Gallagher wrote a book with Evan Wolfson called Marriage and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate in which Wolfson argued that family structure doesn't count. What does is the "dedication, commitment, self-sacrifice, and love in the household." But if those are the things that count, why choose marriage at all? Gallagher writes:
In this view, endorsement of gay marriage is a no-brainer, for nothing really important rides on whether anyone gets married or stays married. Marriage is merely individual expressive conduct, and there is no obvious reason why some individuals' expression of gay love should hurt other individuals' expressions of non-gay love.

Can't people have dedication, commitment, self-sacrifice, and love in households with people to whom they aren't married? If my 80-year-old father comes to live with me, will we not have that? I don't buy Wolfson's argument about what marriage is for because all of these qualities can be found in other important relationships which are not marriage.

The key difference with marriage is not the love, self-sacrifice, and commitment two people have for each other. It's the love, self-sacrifice, and commitment they share to raise a family. Gallagher says it better:
Marriage is the fundamental, cross-cultural institution for bridging the male-female divide so that children have loving, committed mothers and fathers. Marriage is inherently normative: It is about holding out a certain kind of relationship as a social ideal, especially when there are children involved.

Marriage is not simply an artifact of law; neither is it a mere delivery mechanism for a set of legal benefits that might as well be shared more broadly. The laws of marriage do not create marriage, but in societies ruled by law they help trace the boundaries and sustain the public meanings of marriage.

In other words, while individuals freely choose to enter marriage, society upholds the marriage option, formalizes its definition, and surrounds it with norms and reinforcements, so we can raise boys and girls who aspire to become the kind of men and women who can make successful marriages. Without this shared, public aspect, perpetuated generation after generation, marriage becomes what its critics say it is: a mere contract, a vessel with no particular content, one of a menu of sexual lifestyles, of no fundamental importance to anyone outside a given relationship.

The marriage idea is that children need mothers and fathers, that societies need babies, and that adults have an obligation to shape their sexual behavior so as to give their children stable families in which to grow up.

I think part of the reason many same-sex marriage supporters discard this aspect of marriage is that there are so many people who don't have children, don't want children, and don't intend (nee, WILL NOT) have children that the idea of marriage being about children seems quaint.

Back in the old days, marriage was as much about children's inheritance rights as it was about commitment and devotion (perhaps more). Societies in which illegitimate children had no inheritance rights created a sort of necessity for marriage for offspring to participate in the community.

But American society has long since dropped all those sorts of ideas and laws. So, why worry about marriage in terms of children anway? Old people can get married and so can people who have been sterilized and will never have children. Why not homosexuals? Gallagher addresses that, too:
It is also true, as gay-marriage advocates note, that we impose no fertility tests for marriage: Infertile and older couples marry, and not every fertile couple chooses procreation. But every marriage between a man and a woman is capable of giving any child they create or adopt a mother and a father. Every marriage between a man and a woman discourages either from creating fatherless children outside the marriage vow. In this sense, neither older married couples nor childless husbands and wives publicly challenge or dilute the core meaning of marriage. Even when a man marries an older woman and they do not adopt, his marriage helps protect children. How? His marriage means, if he keeps his vows, that he will not produce out-of-wedlock children.

Still, same-sex marriage advocates will argue that marriage isn't about children at all but about personal happiness. But again, that's simply not true. One can be personally happy in a variety of ways that aren't sanctioned by the state and in which the state doesn't interfere. But marriage is the best way to create and raise children because it provides a stability and exclusivity model for children to emulate when they grow up. That's what makes it unique.

To be sure, both Vermont and Massachusetts (at least the court, if not the people) have determined that marriage isn't about children, and this reflects the greater "it's about me" mentality prevalent in modern society. More from Gallagher:
The debate over same-sex marriage, then, is not some sideline discussion. It is the marriage debate. Either we win--or we lose the central meaning of marriage. The great threat unisex marriage poses to marriage as a social institution is not some distant or nearby slippery slope, it is an abyss at our feet. If we cannot explain why unisex marriage is, in itself, a disaster, we have already lost the marriage ideal.

Same-sex marriage would enshrine in law a public judgment that the desire of adults for families of choice outweighs the need of children for mothers and fathers. It would give sanction and approval to the creation of a motherless or fatherless family as a deliberately chosen "good." It would mean the law was neutral as to whether children had mothers and fathers. Motherless and fatherless families would be deemed just fine.

Same-sex marriage advocates are startlingly clear on this point. Marriage law, they repeatedly claim, has nothing to do with babies or procreation or getting mothers and fathers for children. In forcing the state legislature to create civil unions for gay couples, the high court of Vermont explicitly ruled that marriage in the state of Vermont has nothing to do with procreation. Evan Wolfson made the same point in "Marriage and Same Sex Unions": "[I]sn't having the law pretend that there is only one family model that works (let alone exists) a lie?" He goes on to say that in law, "marriage is not just about procreation--indeedis not necessarily about procreation at all."

Wolfson is right that in the course of the sexual revolution the Supreme Court struck down many legal features designed to reinforce the connection of marriage to babies. The animus of elites (including legal elites) against the marriage idea is not brand new. It stretches back at least thirty years. That is part of the problem we face, part of the reason 40 percent of our children are growing up without their fathers.

The rise in illegitimacy was an unintended consequence of the sexual revolution, to be sure, but not an unpredictable one (many, in fact, did predict it). Which gets back to my point about abortion and sex from earlier posts. Pregnancy can be an unintended consequence of sex, but not an unpredictable one.

But back to marriage. One of the arguments given for same-sex marriage is that we've already changed the definition of marriage by getting rid of all those bans on interracial marriage. But as Gallagher points out
The Supreme Court overturned anti-miscegenation laws because they frustrated the core purpose of marriage in order to sustain a racist legal order. Marriage laws, by contrast, were not invented to express animus toward homosexuals or anyone else. Their purpose is not negative, but positive: They uphold an institution that developed, over thousands of years, in thousands of cultures, to help direct the erotic desires of men and women into a relatively narrow but indispensably fruitful channel. We need men and women to marry and make babies for our society to survive. We have no similar public stake in any other family form--in the union of same-sex couples or the singleness of single moms.

In a society that seems to be totally focused on individual fulfillment and happiness, the idea that our laws fill any greater good than these things must seem outdated and quaint. But like the unintended consequences of the sexual revolution, we get rid of these laws at our own peril.