Ask a friend for a definition of marriage and you might expect something like this
‘Marriage is an expression of love in which two people make an exclusive commitment to one another.’
Or maybe something like
‘a private arrangement between parties committed to love’
If that is what marriage is what possible reason could there be for anyone objecting to same-sex marriage? It would be as discriminatory as telling a couple they could not marry because they came from different countries or they had different coloured skin.
It’s working from such a definition of marriage that gay lobbyists (and an increasing number of the population including politians and a prime minister) argue that same-sex marriage is simply a matter of equality. The argument goes that there can be no rational reason to resist the implementation of same-sex marriage legislation and therefore what lies behind the resistance of ‘traditionalists’ is nothing more than prejudice. Those who oppose a change in the law are now almost without thought regarded as simply intolerant, bigoted and homophobic.
But what if the kind of definitions we’ve considered are not a sufficient definition for marriage. What if marriage by definition means more than a loving commitment? What then?
Much of the debate about same-sex marriage has centred around attitudes towards gay people when really the debate needs to centre around the question ‘what is marriage’? How we define marriage is absolutely crucial to whether or not it is appropriate to legislate for same-sex marriage.
By far the most helpful book on the subject is David Blackenhorn’s The Future of Marriage. For the record Blackenhorn is no homophobe. He states quite clearly that what is at stake is not ‘good versus bad, enlightened versus reactionary. The real conflict is between one good and another: the equal dignity of real persons and the worth of homosexual love, versus flourishing of children. On each side, the threat to something important is real.’
Blackenhorn’s book demonstrates that marriage cannot only mean a commitment between two people who love each other. He writes:
‘Defining marriage as essentially a private emotional relationship obscures a large piece of reality…’
Because Blackenhorn points out that marriage exists for a bigger purpose, it always has. Marriage is a social institution that has been designed primarily for the purpose of raising children. He writes ‘Childrearing is probably the single most important social need that marriage is designed to meet, but there are numerous others as well.’
Three important statements then with which to finish this introductory post
1. That children (at least the biological possibility of children even if sadly frustrated by infertility) are central to the definition of marriage is a reality recognised by former Home Secretary Jack Straw MP back in 2000 when he introduced legislation for same-sex civil partnerships:
“I’m a very strong supporter of gay rights and treating people the same regardless of their sexual preference – but marriage has a different purpose. Marriage is about a union for the procreation of children, which by definition can only happen between a heterosexual couple. So I see no circumstances in which we would ever bring forward proposals for so-called gay marriages.”
2. The interconnectedness of marriage and children is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
- (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
- (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
‘Here we see six important ideas. Marriage is intrinsically linked to children. Men and women have equal rights in marriage. Marriage requires the spouses’ free consent. The natural family is society’s basic group unit. The institution of the family deserves protection. And, marriage is a fundamental human right.
The key point is that each of these ideas is connected to all the others. Freedom is linked to solidarity. Marriage is linked to family. Rights imply responsibility…Together, these six ideas are not perfect and do not tell us everything about marriage, but they ably suggest marriage’s fundamental shape and public purpose.’
3. Finally, that marriage is above all else for the purpose of children has been recognised across all cultures and at all times.
Blackenhorn after presenting a raft of evidence on how marriage has functioned through-out the world writes:
‘Across cultures, marriage is above all a procreative institution. It is nothing less than the culturally constructed linchpin of all human family and kinship systems. Marriage brings together biologically unrelated persons to produce the next generation, create fatherhood as a social role for men, and radically expand the reach and possibility of kinship ties. It brings together the two sexes in such a way that each child is born with two parents, a mother and a father, who are legally and jointly responsible for the child.’
Now the question we must turn to next is does anything about the way in which marriage has traditionally functioned suggest that we should not redefine it now. What is at stake in a redefinition of marriage and should a society have any concerns?
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