By far the most common secular objection to gay marriage is that it violates the needs of children for mothers and fathers. According to this argument, the human child has a deep need – many would say (I would say), a right – to love and be loved by the two specific individuals, the man and the woman, whose sexual union brings the child into the world. The French feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski refers in her writing to the “dual origin” of each human child; she points out that this fact of our origin is of profound importance, both personally and socially; and she insists that society, insofar as possible, should respect it and should do nothing to deny or efface it. Gay marriage, in this view, is (among other things) such a denial and therefore should not be permitted.
I have made this argument, in a book and in many public venues. The lawyers opposing gay marriage this month before the U.S. Supreme Court, in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases, are resting their case largely on this argument. And though I have changed my position on gay marriage, I still believe that the argument contains an important core of truth that deserves our attention and respect.
Most supporters of gay marriage profess to see nothing – not even the tiniest shard of evidence or theory – to support this argument.
We are left, then, with two ships passing in the night. The argument that means the most to one side appears to be literally unrecognizable by the other side. In my view, this fact goes a long way to explaining the regular assumption by nearly all participants in the debate of the bad faith of their opponents. (“If they are saying something that self-evidently false, they must be willing to lie and/or motivated by ill will.”) Thus also the endless angry repetition of the same talking points, as if saying something (“Children need mothers and fathers!” “We allow adoption and we allow infertile couples to marry!”) for the 1001st time is going to achieve something that saying it for the 1000th time did not.
I do not aim, in this post, to rehearse these talking points yet again. But I do aim to try to frame basic question about gay marriage and children’s rights somewhat differently – perhaps more precisely – in the hope of producing, not agreement and not the vanquishing of one of these arguments by the other, but simply a bit more clarity regarding the key points disagreement.
Here is my attempt at a more focused question:
At what precise point does state recognition of gay sexuality and family formation deny the needs of children to the degree that requires the denial of state recognition?
OK, if you’ll accept at least provisionally that this may be a better way of asking the question, let’s now try to answer it.
It seems to me that there are six possible answers, and that as a logical matter anyone who asserts a conflict between gay marriage and children’s needs has to be able to choose, and defend, one of these six as his or her Rubicon, or point of decision. Here they are.
1. An individual engaging in homosexual conduct.
The classic Christian teaching – which is still the teaching of the Catholic Church, and which informs much of modern western history on this question – is that homosexual conduct is intrinsically evil because it is sterile; that is, it is not aimed at, or open to, conceiving a child. Because homosexual behavior normatively insults, and functions as a potential alternative to, procreative sexual and conjugal behavior, homosexual acts in and of themselves should be treated by society as illicit, unworthy of legal protection or state recognition. Until fairly recently in Anglo-American societies, homosexual conduct was a crime, and this line of reasoning is a main reason why it was criminalized. So, it’s perfectly pedigreed, and a deep part of Christian and western thought, to view homosexual conduct in and of itself as an affront to the needs of children.
2. A gay or lesbian couple living together.
The homosexual pair-bond takes this alleged insult and alternative one step further. In this case, the sterile alternative to male-female procreation actually assumes a distinct social form that explicitly mimics, as it were, the male-female pair-bond, which of course is the basis of the mother-father married-couple home. So here the insult to the mother-father norm presumably becomes sharper and deeper. In this view, then, two homosexuals living together as a sexually pair-bonded couple clearly undermines the needs of children for mothers and fathers.
3. A gay or lesbian couple getting married.
In this case the conflict with the needs of children becomes even more pronounced, since in this case the state bestows a formal recognition on the homosexual pair-bond, a kind of societal endorsement and legal protection that heretofore had only been available to opposite sex (and therefore typically procreative) couples. Now, sterile sexual conduct that is inconsistent with mother-father procreative norms is not only allowed to exist as non-criminal behavior; and not only allowed to mimic the male-female family household; but is also granted a kind of state seal of approval.
4. A gay or lesbian married couple raising a child who was born from a previous heterosexual relationship of one of the partners.
Now, into this same non-mother-father family form, we introduce a child – a child who, by definition, is being raised by at least one person to whom he or she is a biological stranger. Now, the non-fertile, non-male/female alternative family form is complete: we have two parents (some would say, “parents”) and a child, with a marriage license.
5. A gay or lesbian married couple adopting a child.
The same as number 4, except that in this case the child is adopted, and therefore a biological stranger to both parents.
6. A gay or lesbian married couple raising a child who was born via egg or sperm donation and/or surrogacy (“third party procreation”).
The same as numbers 4 and 5, with one major exception – in this case, there is a proactive decision, taking by a couple in a state-sanctioned pair-bond, intentionally to bring into the world a child who by definition will not be raised by the male and female whose bodies biologically made the child.
OK, as I said, I think these are logically the only six choices available to us. So it’s time to choose. If we believe that gay sexuality and gay family formation at some point undermines children’s needs for mothers and fathers, at what precise point does the undermining, the insult to the mother-father norm, reach the degree that requires a good society to withhold legal tolerance and recognition?
Let me personally cut to the chase. For me, the answer is 6.
I believe that homosexual conduct is benign. I believe that gay and lesbian couples living together are benign. I believe that gay and lesbian couples should be permitted to marry. I believe in the permissibility (especially given the alternatives) of gay adoption. I don’t like our high rates of divorce and family fragmentation one bit, and have spent much of my life (and expect to continue to do so in the future) pushing for ways to reduce unnecessary divorce and slash our unconscionably high rates of family fragmentation and non-formation, but since we don’t outlaw divorce, and since we don’t outlaw unmarried couples having children or breaking up with their lovers and co-parents, I don’t see the grounds on which we would allow reconstituted families for all couples except same-sex couples.
I believe these things about numbers 1-5 for two larger or connecting reasons. The first is that I view orientation as fairly hard-wired. The evidence cross-culturally and biologically suggests to me that the heterosexual project, if I can call it that, is fairly stable, secure, and deeply rooted in the human record experience. Letting a small fraction of our fellow citizens conduct themselves homosexually, form same-sex pair bonds, marry, adopt children, and form stepfamilies does not, in my view, threaten the fundamental heterosexuality of the universe; there isn’t likely to be seepage or leakage from straight to gay; and therefore these sexual and familial acts do not threaten the needs of children (in particular the needs of the children of the 95 or 96 percent of us who are not gay) to the degree that requires the criminalization or stigmatization of homosexual conduct or the denial of legal recognition of same-sex couples and their children. The second reason for this conclusion is my sense of what constitutes basic fairness: We have to find ways to live together and treat each other with a modicum of fairness and decency.
As for number 6, I pick that as my point of conflict, my line to draw, my Rubicon, because I think there is something distinctively harmful (not that everything about it is harmful, but I believe it always contains a portion of harm) about intentionally, as a proactive deed of family formation, bringing into the world a child who by definition, as a result of premeditation, will be radically estranged from either her biological mother or her biological father. Such an act clearly does, in my view, conflict with children’s rights.
What is the best, the most effective, way for me, David Blankenhorn, to speak and act on this issue? Does my conviction on this issue require me, as an ethical matter, to oppose gay marriage?
I don’t think so, and here’s why. All persons today – gay or straight, coupled or single, married or unmarried – are already perfectly free to found families relying on third party procreation. The practice is entirely licit and mainstream. Nothing and no one is preventing it from taking place. More straight people than gay people currently use it. By almost any reasonable measure, permitting gay marriage will do nothing to enhance the right of anyone to engage in this activity, and prohibiting gay marriage will do nothing to restrict that right, since the right is already all but absolute. Gay marriage has no more causal connection to this issue than numbers 1 or 2 above (engaging in homosexual conduct or being in a same-sex couple), which is to say that, apart from sexual iconography, it has almost no relationship at all.
In my mind, the best way to address this difficult issue is to address it directly, first by pushing for laws banning donor anonymity, and second by bringing together a broad coalition of concerned people (including gay people and gay married couples) for serious ethical and legal reflection, perhaps leading to shifts in public opinion and/or legal changes. Anchoring my concern about this issue in opposition to gay marriage seems to me to be not only largely beside the point, but also possibly counter-productive, since so long as this issue is connected in the public mind to gay rights, so long will the issue be all but untouchable by policy makers and others. The task before us, in my view, is to engage in serious ethical reflection on the activity itself, irrespective of whether the people who do it in any one case are gay or straight, married or single. In other words, to address this issue effectively, we have to disenthrall ourselves. This issue should not be about gay rights any more than straight rights; it should be about the meaning (to the degree that we can agree on the meaning) of the dual origin of the human child.
I am not insisting that this analysis is correct. I’m sure it has all kinds of weaknesses. But I am suggesting that anyone who finds a conflict between gay sexuality and family formation on the one hand, and the needs of children on the other, needs to state clearly those precise sexual circumstances and living conditions in which the conflict emerges to such a degree that state recognition is unwise. That is, I am suggesting that people who believe that a conflict exists need to spell out the coflict specifically, as I’ve tried here to do for myself, in the context of the range of logically possible answers, instead of simply repeating at the level of broad generalization that gay marriage is wrong because children need mothers and fathers.