David Blankenhorn and I are continuing an exchange about his arguments opposing gay marriage, expressed in an article for the Weekly Standard and in his new book The Future of Marriage. In his latest posts, he has responded here, asking me to identify weaknesses in the case for gay marriage and strengths in the opposition to it, and here, asking whether I agree that society should take steps to increase the likelihood that children are raised by their married biological parents and refrain from taking steps that make that less likely.
These are fair questions and I’ll respond below. But first I want to emphasize something unique and valuable in Blankenhorn’s work. In The Future of Marriage, Blankenhorn says he believes homosexuality “is closer to being a given than a choice,” that he “disagrees” with the parts of the Bible that are commonly interpreted to condemn homosexuality, and that Jesus’ teachings are inconsistent with the condemnation of gay people. (P. 210) I’m told that in a recent debate with Jon Rauch, Blankenhorn actually affirmed “the equal dignity of homosexual love.” He also said that he “agonized” over the real harm done to gay couples by prohibiting them from marrying. The debate occurred at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank for religious and social conservatives, which shows he's unafraid to say these things in environments potentially hostile to them.
If there were more advocates on both sides in the mold of David Blankenhorn, we’d have a much more civil and fruitful debate over gay marriage. It would be terrific if gay-marriage supporters would occasionally acknowledge that it’s at least possible (though very unlikely) that some unintended harm might occur if marriage is expanded to include same-sex couples and that not all anxiety about gay marriage arises from base hatred of gay people. And it would be terrific if gay-marriage opponents could at least acknowledge that they are asking gay couples and families to bear the burden of not running that cultural risk.
Having said all that, I’m a bit disappointed by Blankenhorn’s lack of response to my specific criticisms of his argument. I challenged on several grounds his claim that gay marriage in Europe is contributing to a miasma of anti-marriage attitudes. Blankenhorn offers no defense against the criticism that his argument rests on correlation alone and that this is insufficient to show gay marriage has caused anything bad to happen. He makes no response to the observation that non-traditional attitudes about marriage and family life in pro-SSM countries preceded gay marriage and so could not have been caused by gay marriage. He says nothing about how several other long-term and deep systemic factors likely caused non-traditional attitudes about marriage in Europe long before SSM entered the picture. He ignores correlations in countries with gay marriage that cut in favor of the reform (like rising marriage rates). He passes by correlations in countries without gay marriage that cut against his opposition (less respect for women’s equality, less commitment to individual rights, etc., in countries like Saudi Arabia). He still demonstrates no real familiarity with the complexity of the debate on the left over the effects of gay marriage, and particularly the concerns expressed by many marriage radicals that gay marriage will reaffirm the normativity of marriage.
His only response is that there’s nothing new to respond to. He’s a busy man, so I don’t entirely fault him for this. But it seems to me he has left a lot on the table. That’s his right, and like him I’m content to let readers decide whether he has more to answer at the very heart of his empirical arguments.
Instead, Blankenhorn shifts the focus to other issues. He asks me: “Do you believe that both sides have a valid case? And if you do believe that both sides have a case, what do you think is the strongest point on the other (anti gay marriage) side, and the corresponding weakest point on your side?”
As it happens, I’ve already addressed these issues. As for the best argument against gay marriage, I think it’s a Burkean one that emphasizes the need for continuity and stability in longstanding and widely prevailing practices, that presumes against change in such practices, that rejects abstract arguments for reform rather than ones built on actual experience, and that prefers incremental rather than sudden and convulsive change. I think these Burkean concerns can be answered, but they form a powerful critique of gay marriage that pro-SSM advocates have not paid enough attention to.
There are also some ”Bad Arguments for Gay Marriage.” Among these bad arguments are the emphasis many gay-marriage advocates place on the specific legal rights and benefits marriage provides, rather than on the cultural and social importance of marriage; the heavy focus of the gay-marriage movement on legalistic and constitutional arguments, rather than on policy concerns; and the undoubted desire of some marriage radicals to promote gay marriage as a way to undermine marriage and change civilization.
I don’t share Blankenhorn’s view that gay marriage involves a “conflict of goods,” that is, a trade-off in which either accepting or rejecting the reform will cause harm to some widely accepted social good. Many contentious public policy questions genuinely present a case of goods in conflict. The most prominent example would be abortion, which pits the life of the unborn child against women’s autonomy and equality in society.
But gay marriage is not really a case of goods in conflict because it requires no sacrifice of any public good. Here we get to Blankenhorn’s last question to me:
To me, and to many others, the anthropological evidence is overwhelming that the primary purpose of marriage as a human institution is to give to each child born the gift of the mother and the father whose physical union made the child. Do you, Dale, accept that conclusion and therefore do you agree, along with many leading marriage and family scholars and authorities, that our society ought to do what it can to recognize and strengthen that birthright, and refrain from taking any steps that would be likely to (further) damage or weaken it?
Marriage does not have unchangeable a priori “purposes” that fall from the sky or that are derived from either some abstract principle or from religious authority. The purposes of marriage arise instead from human experience, history, tradition, and actual practice. They can and do evolve as civilization changes and as we learn new things. I think Blankenhorn would agree with me so far, though it would be interesting to know if he does not. (Robert George, for example, would not agree with those claims.)
Based on the actual practice and history of marriage in this country and elsewhere, I agree with Blankenhorn that a (perhaps the) central and important public purpose of marriage has been to encourage men and women who make babies to raise their children within marriage. I also agree that public policy should continue to encourage mothers and fathers to raise their children within marriage and should avoid steps that would discourage them from doing so.
Where we differ is that I see nothing in gay marriage inconsistent with this important purpose. Consider Blankenhorn’s argument about how recognizing gay marriages means losing the primary purpose of marriage:
Every child raised by a same-sex couple will by definition be missing either their mother or their father. It is therefore not possible, or at least extremely hard, to believe both in gay marriage and in the importance of this essential cross-cultural purpose of marriage. The two goods are in conflict; we as a society must choose which we think is more important.
The first sentence is a truism but the second sentence does not necessarily follow from it. It is not impossible, and not even difficult, to believe that gay marriage and man-woman procreation and child-rearing can coexist. Gay marriage will certainly not stop men and women from procreating. It will also not stop them from marrying (they’re marrying at higher rates in countries with SSM). And it will not take a single child away from a man and woman who want to raise that child together in marriage.
But if you doubt any of these things, consider Blankenhorn’s argument in the context of marital and procreational practices that are already widely approved. Let’s apply Blankenhorn’s argument to a different context:
Every child raised in a second-marriage family will by definition be missing either their mother or their father. It is therefore not possible, or at least extremely hard, to believe both in remarriage after divorce and in the importance of this essential cross-cultural purpose of marriage. The two goods are in conflict; we as a society must choose which we think is more important.
Or situate the argument in this context:
Every child raised by an adoptive single parent or two parents will by definition be missing either their mother or their father. It is therefore not possible, or at least extremely hard, to believe both in adoption and in the importance of this essential cross-cultural purpose of marriage. The two goods are in conflict; we as a society must choose which we think is more important.
Or how about this:
Every child created through a surrogate mother or sperm donation will by definition be missing either their mother or their father. It is therefore not possible, or at least extremely hard, to believe both in these assisted reproduction methods and in the importance of this essential cross-cultural purpose of marriage. The two goods are in conflict; we as a society must choose which we think is more important.
None of these statements would get much support in our society, and indeed most people would be puzzled by them. They would bristle at the notion that remarriage, adoption, or assisted reproduction means “[c]hanging the meaning of marriage and normative parenthood” or “changes marriage and parenthood overall — not just for the children in” these households “but for all children.” They would see these claims as unsupported, alarmist, and a bit hysterical.
I doubt Blankenhorn opposes all divorce, remarriage after divorce, adoption by couples or even single people, or these methods by which sterile opposite-sex couples make children. I doubt he thinks they undermine the primary purpose of marriage to bring biological parents together to raise their children. If that’s right, what makes the effect of same-sex marriage on marriage any different? The child raised under circumstances of second marriage, adoption, or assisted reproduction is denied its “birthright” to be raised in a marriage of its biological mother and father every bit as much as if it is raised by neither of its biological parents or by only one of them in a gay marriage.
There is an obvious answer to this: that there is something qualitatively different - - and inferior - - about a homosexual couple as compared to a heterosexual couple in these same circumstances. A great many people opposed to gay marriage would say, “Just so.” Does Blankenhorn? Based on what he’s said publicly about homosexuals, I doubt it.
There is another, and better, possible answer that isn’t homophobic. Remarriage makes the best of a tragedy, the divorce of biological parents (or the death of one of them). Adoption makes the best of another kind of tragedy, one in which biological parents can’t or won’t raise their child. Assisted reproduction helps parents who can’t otherwise have children. All of these public policies are a form of satisficing, choosing a second-best but acceptable alternative where the best choice is unavailable. But we would never say that the law should intentionally create any of these circumstances. Gay marriage, on this view, would be intentionally creating a circumstance in which children are raised outside of the married, biological-parents context; it would not merely be satisficing.
The problem for this argument, as I see it, is that large numbers of children are already being raised by gay parents. By the most conservative estimates, about 1-2 million children are being raised by single gays or gay couples in the United States. These children did not fall from the sky into gay homes. They got there by the same processes that cause them to end up in the homes of opposite-sex parents: a prior marriage that fell apart for any of a thousand reasons, an adoption of a child who’s unwanted by her biological parents, and assisted reproduction where the parents can't otherwise have children.
All of these children — whether raised in heterosexual or homosexual households — are “by definition missing either their mother or their father.” We'd prefer that parents never got divorced, that children (especially the sick, infirm, and older children) never went begging for adoptive homes, or that couples could reproduce on their own. But that is not the world we live in. We live in a world where we must make the best of what we're dealt. Gay people live in that world too.
We could go one of two directions with these hard realities. The first is that suggested by proponents of gay marriage. We say, in effect, “When it comes to the welfare of children, gay marriage is a form of satisficing on a par with heterosexual remarriage, adoption, and assisted reproduction. It binds up otherwise broken families, provides a loving and stable environment for kids whose biological parents can’t or won’t raise them, and gives couples who can't have a child the chance to raise one they can call their own.”
The second option is a stark, prohibitionist one. We could forbid gay people to raise children, even their own biological children; we could prohibit them from adopting children; and we could bar them from using methods of assisted reproduction. Then, at least when it comes to children, there would be no need for gay marriage as a form of satisficing. Yes, the prohibitionist approach would entail huge upheaval for these particular children and for their gay parents. It would be heartbreaking. But perhaps it would be worth it if you really believe “the future of marriage” is at stake.
Other than continuing to ignore the dilemma, which a lot people would prefer to do, I do not see a viable and stable third way between gay marriage and prohibition that serves the interests of children being raised by gay people (though of course we could call the gay couple’s relationship something other than marriage).
So at this point I have some questions for Blankenhorn. Does he support the prohibitionist route? Does he believe children should be taken away from their gay parents and placed in foster care until they can be adopted by a loving substitute married man and woman? Does he oppose allowing gay people, either singles or couples, to adopt children? To use the services of a sperm donor or surrogate mother?
If he does not oppose these things, then he necessarily believes these children and future children by the millions should be raised by gay singles and couples who will never marry. Does this not undermine the idea that marriage should be the situs for raising children?
And does he believe the children being raised by gay families would be better off, worse off, or unaffected by the ability of their parents to marry?
In a coming post, I’ll have more to say about purposes of marriage other than the generative one Blankenhorn has recently highlighted.