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May 17, 2004

Unsolicited Testimony to the Rhode Island Legislature on Same-Sex Marriage

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In researching the issue of same-sex marriage, one comes across many accounts of homosexual parents who wish to raise their children in the most normal environment possible. Other cases involve people who want primarily to procure assistance in caring for each other. Because these arguments draw so directly from the pool of reasons that society supports and encourages marriage, they are the most powerful for their cause. Our hearts rightly ache in response to such pleas, sincerely put forward, and were the institution of marriage healthier, we might move to make exceptions.

The unfortunate reality is, however, that marriage and the family structure that ensues are in a weakened condition. We've all heard the statistic that half of marriages end in divorce. Less well known is that only fifty percent of children conceived in the United States are born to parents who are married, with the remainder evenly split between abortion and birth out of wedlock.

Countries that are further along in the liberalization of family structure provide evidence of the folly of its pursuit. In Sweden and Norway, for example, children are more likely to be born out of wedlock than within. Sweden's abortion rate is higher than that of the United States, and ours is dropping while theirs climbs. Children's odds of being born into wedlock — of being born at all — are plummeting throughout Europe. It is crucial for the United States, which is much larger, encompasses greater demographic diversity, and drives more of the global economy to avoid the further erosion of marriage.

The hopeful news is that the domestic tide may already be turning. Abortions are back down to the rates of the 1970s. Out-of-wedlock births seem to be reaching the crest of their curve. Shifting the institution on which family issues hinge, therefore, would shake ground on which we've only just begun to get our balance. The particular innovation of same-sex marriage would not have minimal repercussions.

Compelling arguments can be made for the extension of certain benefits to homosexuals for their roles as parents and as mutual caregivers, and that is an area of legislation that is surely worthy of debate, at both the state and federal levels. One question that such proceedings would have to address is the bottom-line purpose of the laws and to whom benefits ought to be granted. If a brother and sister, for example, are committed to raising her child from a previous marriage, why should the argument for assisting children's guardians exclude them? Perhaps a daughter should be able to ensure that her Social Security extends to her mother, for whom she cares, should anything happen to the younger woman. But if these questions, and countless variations, are asked and answered within the context of marriage, the institution would quickly lose its legal and cultural meaning and, therefore, its power to shape our society.

Dilution is only one of the routes toward marriage's decline should we extend it to same-sex couples at this time. Every statement about marriage ever made in law, philosophy, sociology, and so on has been premised on its definition's being opposite-sex. It is difficult to think of an institution more susceptible to unintended consequences. Marriage lies at exactly the intersection between government and culture, public and private, secular and religious.

Homosexuals who would like the ability to marry each other ask whom it would hurt. The answer is not emotionally satisfying, but it is no less important for being so. The major policy questions of our day rarely deal with direct benefits that lead to direct detriments. We don't know whom, specifically, same-sex marriage would hurt. However, we do know who is most harmed by fundamental liberalization of family structures: those for whom it is not a choice and those without the resources to absorb the disruption. Children, in the first case. In the second, the poor and struggling.

Even if, for the purposes of civic policy, we sublimate religious considerations to a presumption of individual liberty, as I believe we should, we must admit that the right to marriage cannot be granted on a case-by-case basis. It must represent a social and moral standard. This is a practical reality as well as a substantive one. Marriage is effective because of its shared principles and the way in which it counterpoises benefits and requirements. Civil support of it exists, in large part, for the sake of those families most at risk to break its rules — to give them a sense that there are rules. Its tacit meaning and simple emphasis are crucial attributes.

This careful balance of factors that are most important for those least able to articulate them can only be safely manipulated through similarly broad and implicit, almost uncalculated, change. This isn't a civil rights issue; homosexuals are free to form relationships, to pursue happiness, however they desire. This is a matter of societal well-being, of fundamental construction and first principles. We all — young and old, married and single, gay and straight — will be helped or hurt by the decisions that we make as citizens today.

Even as we seek humane accommodations for those whose lives venture beyond the boundaries of institutional ideals, we must allow those boundaries to expand naturally, not prematurely. There may well come a day when familial frontiers seem ordinary extensions of the marriage community. The law can reflect that sense when it comes, because the law will not risk undermining our culture; it will be, itself, an effect thereof. But legislators and judges should not use the law of this state to dictate a change with effects that we cannot possibly comprehend as we stand, now, in the midst of turmoil and controversy.

To the contrary, the legislature must cement the current legal definition of marriage so that the laws of other states don't dictate change in ours, and so that our courts don't transform marriage through the pretense that the law already demands it. We are a charitable people, but let's not ignore countless faces that we cannot yet see out of compassion for a few that we can.

Ampersand has picked up on something that I probably should have made clearer above. The "abortion rate" to which I refer is measured as the percentage of conceived children aborted, and I drew the conclusion based on some statistical analysis that I performed (with charts) back in March.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 17, 2004 10:28 AM
Marriage & Family

It appears that Massachusetts is essentially abolishing the traditional concept of marriage, through the dual mechanisms of (A) letting anyone marry anyone, no questions asked, and (B) dissolving marriages on request for no particular reason.

Such easy entrance and exit is kind of like having a building with 4 open walls: almost the same as no building at all.

Posted by: vbc at May 18, 2004 10:34 PM

For all the seemingly reasonable writing in this essay, I can find no solid points made. It's as if you're skirting around making statements that can be refuted--other than overall gay marriage is bad.

And you mention a lot of statistics but you don't link to any, and you don't back up your 'facts' with references. If this is an opinion piece, fine; but you're acting like your're writing from solid research. What solid research?

vbc, no fault divorce has been around in most states for decades. In fact, some of the leading opponents of gay marriage have benefits from no-fault divorce. As far as I know, there is no state that demands 'proof' for granting a divorce. Where did you come up with your supposition?

Posted by: Shelley at May 19, 2004 1:07 PM

Marriage is most evidently ruined by divorce.

The way to eliminate divorce is to eliminate marriage.

End of problems.

Posted by: M. Simon at May 19, 2004 3:52 PM


This was actually intended as a general, bigger picture op-ed type piece. Nonetheless, I disagree that there are no "solid points" and can't address your objection without knowing more specifically what it is.

As for vbc's comment, I'm pretty sure "no-fault" divorce is "B." That every state has it (more or less) doesn't make Massachusetts's formula any less effective.

(Tangentially, "no-fault" divorce isn't so much a waiver of "proof" as a method of dissolving the marriage. In "fault" divorce, one spouse claims some form of harm. Some states require a waiting period for "no-fault," and "fault" circumvents that. (For example.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 21, 2004 11:47 PM