How Contrasting Models of Parenthood Can Help Us Understand Conservative Briefs Filed for – and against – Same-Sex Marriage
As co-editor of What Is Parenthood?: Contemporary Debates about the Family, I welcome this chance to explain, in this online symposium, the book’s genesis and what it can contribute to contemporary debates about parenthood, families, and marriage. I will illustrate by commenting on two conservative amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs filed on opposite sides in Hollingsworth v. Perry, one of the two same-sex marriage cases now before the United States Supreme Court.
In the brief that made headlines because of its many prominent Republican signatories, Kenneth B. Mehlman and a group of “social and political conservatives, moderates, and libertarians” argue that “traditional conservative values,” including “the belief in the importance of stable families,” are not only “consistent with” but “are advanced” by “providing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.” That brief urges the Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to declare that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” violates the federal constitution. In contrast, prominent conservative political philosopher Robert George, along with Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis (his co-authors of the book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense), have filed a brief in Hollingsworth arguing that, far from extending marriage’s “stabilizing norms,” “redefining marriage” to allow same-sex couples to marry would “undermine” those norms and harm “spouses, children, and others.”
How can these briefs, which share the premise that marriage fosters stable families, reach such different conclusions about same-sex marriage? One reason, on which What Is Parenthood? sheds light, is that they hold different views about parenthood. They differ, for example, on whether biology and gender complementarity are central to parenting and child well-being. They differ on whether the benefits and protections marriage offers for adults and children are available only if marriage is made up of one man and one woman.
What Is Parenthood? grew out of a public conversation between my co-editor, Daniel Cere, and me about how the liberal feminist approach to the family and marriage that I developed in my book, The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility, differed from the conjugal model of marriage that Dan elaborated in his work and in publications by the Institute for American Values. Why did we see things so differently? Were there points of common ground? That conversation, facilitated by David Blankenhorn, led us to undertake a book project to explore how disagreements about marriage and the direction family law and policy should take often rest in conflicting convictions about parenthood. In What Is Parenthood?, we, along with a distinguished group of scholars from different disciplines, grapple with significant questions about parenthood. As a guiding framework, we use two contrasting models of parenthood: the integrative model and the diversity model. We acknowledge that there are variations within these models and that the image of a continuum might help us to map approaches to parenthood. I am very grateful to legal scholar Nancy Dowd, our series editor at NYU Press (and contributor to this symposium), for seeing the value of the book’s approach to parenthood.
I urge readers to consult the book for a full account of these models. Here is a thumbnail sketch. The integrative, or conjugal, model, regards marriage as the central social institution for uniting heterosexuality, reproduction, and parenthood so that children grow up with their two biological parents. Calling the model “integrative” highlights that biological, social, and legal parenthood should all fit together in marriage. The model stresses sex difference and gender complementarity: marriage channels human bonding and reproduction to ensure that children have a biological father and mother, who tend to parent differently.
The diversity model recognizes and responds to the diversity in patterns of family life, including the different pathways to parenthood. Many proponents of the model (including me) share the integrative model’s conviction that marriage is an important institution for linking adult-adult intimate bonds to the parent-child bond. However, the diversity model supports same-sex marriage as furthering child well-being. The model defines parenthood more by reference to the quality of the relationship between adult and child than to whether a biological or formal legal tie exists between them. Thus, it supports adoption and the use by adults of assisted reproductive technology to become parents. Instead of insisting that children need and have a right to one biological mother and father, it maintains that children have a basic right to healthy attachment and good parenting. The model also embraces family law’s move away from fixed gender roles for spouses and parents and toward equality as a basic norm.
With these two models in mind, how do the two contrasting amicus briefs map onto contemporary debates about parenthood? First, the George Brief asserts the integrative, or conjugal, model of parenthood and marriage. It contrasts marriage as a “conjugal relationship – the type of union that only a man and woman can form” with a “revisionist view” that marriage is “just the sort of emotional union that any two (or more) adults can form.” Marriage is unique: while same-sex couples (and close friends, for that matter) can unite hearts and minds, only one man and one woman can unite bodily in a generative act – sexual intercourse – and produce new life. Society’s interest in marriage is as (quoting James Q. Wilson) “‘a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.’” Because of marriage’s special role, allowing same-sex couples to marry will “obscure the true nature of marriage as a conjugal union.” This will undermine – rather than extend – marriage’s stabilizing norms.
The George Brief links the conjugal model of marriage to gender complementarity: it asserts that “‘men and women bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise’” (quoting W. Bradford Wilcox) and that (citing studies) “a conjugal union is, on the whole, the most appropriate environment for rearing children.” Recognizing same-sex relationships would “legally abolish that ideal,” and “teach that mothers and fathers are fully interchangeable.”
Second, the Mehlman Brief is a hybrid of the integrative and diversity two models. Marriage’s role in fostering stable families, it argues, will be furthered – not undermined – by “providing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.” It continues: “there is no legitimate, fact-based reason for denying same-sex couples the same recognition in law that is available to opposite-sex couples.” To the contrary, “the facts and evidence show that permitting civil marriage for same-sex couples will enhance the institution, protect children, and benefit society generally.” Thus, “the stability and mutual support and obligation” that marriage confers should be available to same-sex couples.
“Marriage,” the brief asserts, “also benefits children.” Consistent with the diversity model, the Mehlman Brief rejects gender complementary as necessary for optimal parenting. The benefits of marriage for adults and children, it asserts, “do not depend on the gender of the individuals forming the married couple.” Further, there is “no biological justification” for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples, and no evidence that allowing them to marry will undermine marriage’s importance for opposite-sex couples. The brief also appeals to findings that there are “no significant differences” in child outcomes between same-sex and heterosexual parents. Marriage, it states, is a “child-protective institution,” but this includes protecting children who are not biologically related to their parents (such as adoptive children).
The brief cleverly offers the example of the First Family to challenge the idea that marriage’s primary role is to “channel the procreative impulse”: “Our Nation’s first President and his wife had no children together, but their marriage provided a protective family structure for raising Martha Washington’s children by her first marriage as well as her grandchildren.” In other words, children will benefit by bringing same-sex couples under the big tent of marriage.
Like the integrative approach to parenthood, the Mehlman Brief asserts that marriage is the optimal setting for child-rearing. However, like the diversity approach, it asserts that a marital family consisting of two men or two women can foster child well-being and family values. The brief also resonates with the diversity model in insisting that an appeal to gender difference does not justify excluding same-sex couples from marriage and the protections it brings for parents and children.
That prominent “social and political conservatives, moderates, and libertarians” are arguing that same-sex marriage will strengthen marriage and promote important values is a dramatic and encouraging development in society’s evolving approach to parenthood. (The brief is also significant for its argument that marriage is a fundamental right that should be available to same-sex couples, but I confine myself here to the parenthood dimension of the brief.) Marriage, on this conservative view, is a big tent that can include families with married, same-sex parents. This seems consistent with the call by the Institute for American Values for a “new conversation about marriage.”
That said, I have three concerns, from the perspective of a diversity approach, about this big tent conservative approach. I raise them to invite comment, but must defer a full discussion to another day. First, as a prior symposium on this blog (on the State of Our Unions 2012 report) detailed, in the United States, there is a growing, class-based marriage gap, or what I called there “the other marriage equality problem.” How should family law and policy address this gap, particularly when adults who feel marriage is out of reach become parents? Second, the diversity model would resist the inference that because marriage is a valuable way to integrate intimate and parenting bonds, it is the only valuable family form or the one most worthy of governmental and societal support. One premise of the diversity model is that some degree of diversity in family forms and parenthood is inevitable as people exercise their moral capacity and freedom to live out their vision of the good life.
Third, both the George Brief and the Mehlman Brief stress the important role of marriage in advancing a traditional conservative value – limited government – by reducing the need for governmental support of children and families. We might call this the “private welfare function” of families. Certainly, families do play a vital role in providing nurture and care for, and meeting the economic needs of, their members, but this does not mean that government has no responsibility to meet such needs. (Interested readers may find the work of Martha Fineman a useful introduction to this issue.) There are lively and significant points of disagreement between conservatives, on the one hand, and liberals, feminists, and progressives, on the other, about the contours of public and private responsibility when it comes to supporting families!
I look forward to the comments on What Is Parenthood? in this symposium and encourage those whose curiosity is sparked to consult the book as the political and legal debates over parenthood, families, and marriage continue to evolve.