Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Marriage, Childbearing, and Childrearing

In the debate about gay marriage, it is often argued that the purpose of marriage is to provide the best context for raising children. Thus, the argument goes, marriage is intrinsically heterosexual, because gay couples (in and of themselves) can not procreate. There are a number of things that can be said in response to this. The most common response is to note that defining marriage solely in terms of procreation demeans the marriages of those who are infertile and of those who choose not to have children. Most Americans would find it cruel (needless to say incorrect) to assert that the marriage of an elderly couple or a childless couple is pointless. Instead, we should acknowledge that childrearing is a purpose -- but not the only purpose -- of marriage. (And I should like to write more about other purposes another time.) But the most insidious fallacy of the "marriage = procreation" argument is the conceptual confusion between childbearing and childrearing. (This confusion runs so deep that even normally rigorous thinkers such as the Anal Philosopher mix up the concepts.)

Procreation is the act that leads to bringing a new child into the world. Childrearing is the provision of love, support, guidance, and resources over nearly two decades. While childrearing naturally and optimally follows procreation, the two acts are distinct and separable. Our society is painfully aware that the ability to produce children does not necessarily coincide with the ability to raise them. Sadly, many children are born to parents who are not prepared or able to take care of them. Happily, many couples are willing to adopt children which are not their own, a act of great altruism generally viewed as admirable. In fact, adoptive parents are likely better equipped and on average more successful at childrearing than natural parents, since there are no unintentional adoptive parents, and (unlike natural parents) adoptive parents must interview for the job.

Now that we have distinguished these concepts, we must ask whether marriage is for procreation or for childrearing. And I think we would have to answer that procreation (a one-night act) is secondary to childrearing (a two-decade act). It is the long haul of childrearing that the institution of marriage is well-designed to support. Naturally we like to see the two go together, but given a choice between a family of adoptive parents versus two people who accidentally produced a baby, it should be clear in which context the essence of marriage belongs.

Finally we return to the question of whether marriage, insofar as it is for childrearing, is intrinsically heterosexual. Granted, procreation is intrinsically heterosexual (although some homosexual couples do procreate by means of more complex arrangements involving third parties). But childrearing -- which we have said is the provision of love, support, guidance, and resources over a long haul -- does not logically entail heterosexuality. Many homosexual couples have proven to be competent parents. (Here is one example where a Florida family court judge praised two men for being model parents.) While some will claim that proper child development somehow requires both male and female models, it is a narrow view of the world that insists that only men have stereotypically "male" attributes and only women have "female" attributes. Moreover, unless the family lives in a cave, the children will meet other people of both genders (extended family, teachers, friends) who will have some part to play in shaping their understanding of the world. What I think most people can agree is truly essential is to provide a stable, secure, and loving home. And it is the marriage of two loving committed spouses -- straight or gay -- that is best suited to provide that environment.


M.S. Hayes said...

Excellent point about the distinction between procreating and childrearing. I'm putting a link on my blog.

Jeff Hersh said...

I agree with Tom that the distinction between procreation and child rearing is significant, and we should use it to rebut those who contend being raised by same-sex couples has the same deleterious effect on the child as being raised by a single parent, or a parent and step-parent after a divorce. As I see it, gay couples are identical to heterosexual married couples where one spouse is infertile. They have the same options – adopt, or have a surrogate child.

In Amherst, Mass, my straight cousin and his wife adopted two young boys from an orphanage in Kazakhstan. In Austin, Texas, a gay couple I know, in which one partner is deaf, adopted a young deaf boy from China. All three children are now happy, emotionally well adjusted, and have learned a new language (including sign for the deaf boy). Each of these three children faced considerable challenges – not merely from the transition into a new family and a new culture – but from issues stemming from difficult experiences each endured prior to their adoption. No doubt, these children will confront many of these problems again in their childhood, and face new obstacles. However, whether their child-rearing parents are gay or straight will not be very high on their list of potential obstacles.

The Chinese boy would benefit by his gay adoptive parents remaining together in one family unit. Marriage would help ensure that. If one’s primary concern is the benefit of the child, then one would clearly support gay marriage for this reason. Those opposed to gay marriage argue that a child is better off having two – not one – parents, who are of the opposite sex. I have not seen any study that suggests children raised by gay couples are less well adjusted than those raised by straight couples, particularly if you compare groups who adopt children of the same age. (Anyone know of any studies of such comparisons?)

Moreover, the argument is disingenuous, if not down-right spurious. Even if children were better off being raised by a married opposite-sex couple, that no more justifies a bar on gay marriage than it justifies making it illegal for single persons to have and raise a child, or to bar people with a low IQ, or who are poor, from having children. The argument presupposes that without gay marriages, children like the deaf Chinese boy will be raised by heterosexual married couples. That is false. The fact that Texas bars gay marriages didn’t stop the Austin couple from adopting the boy. The Kazakhstan boys and the deaf Chinese boy were lucky that they were adopted by someone who was willing and capable of caring for them. Even in states that bar gay adoptions, gays often become parents, either by being a foster parent, or by being a natural parent to the child. No matter what happens with laws affecting familial matters, gays will continue to raise children.

And if we care about the emotional well-being of these children, then we should discourage these gay parents from raising the child alone, and encourage them to create a stable family structure with two parents. Allowing same-sex marriage is really a no-brainer.

Alas, I think we all know that these arguments will not sway opponents of gay marriage – rationality has never been impediment to prejudice and bigotry.