Children do best with a mom and a dad
Can a child have three legal parents? Should
parenthood be routinely determined by something other than biology?
Should we extend the right to marriage to same-sex couples? To groups of
people? Or should we abolish marriage as a legal institution?
Not so long ago, such questions would have been raised
only in a science-fiction tale. Not anymore. They're questions seriously
discussed in college classrooms, advocacy seminars and in forums to
challenge lawyers, judges and policymakers. The idea is to change family
law as we know it. Marriage is targeted for deconstruction.
From the time America was a colony, the marriage model
was governed by law, culture and traditions flowing from the
Judeo-Christian religious ideal. Marriage was specifically a social
institution designed for the protection of children. The law wasn't
perfect, suffering the flaws of humanity, but the law was clear and
well-intentioned. The law defined rights, responsibilities and
punishment and shaped a shared sense of obligation in private and social
conduct on behalf of children. We made changes in the law from time to
time, but we never dropped our concern for the offspring of marriage.
That was then.
“Family law today appears to be embracing a big new idea,” writes Daniel
Cere, a professor of ethics at McGill University in Canada and the
principal investigator for an inquiry into the future of family law, the
conclusions of which are published by the Institute for American Values,
a nonpartisan organization in New York City dedicated to strengthening
families and civil society.
“The idea is that marriage is only a close personal relationship between
adults,” he says, “and no longer a pro-child social institution.” (The
report is available at
Influential advocates from politically correct
academic and legal organizations sneer at traditional marriage as
another bad example of “ethnocentric” thinking that promotes
“old-fashioned ideological stereotypes.” These advocates accuse the law
of dismissing “diversity.” By diversity they mean the experience of
racial minorities, women, single parents, divorced and remarried people,
gays and lesbians. A large body of social science and psychological data
demonstrate that not all forms of parenthood are equally child-friendly,
but these advocates say that's merely a point of view to be replaced by
“close relationship” law.
In “close relationship” law there's a moral equivalence between marriage
and cohabitation — what society once derided as “living together.”
There's ample research to show that mere cohabitation to produce
children creates a less stable environment for them than marriage. In
“close relationship” law, a “partner” is the equal of a “parent” and
conjugal marriage morphs into the generic neutrality of “coupledom.” In
“close relationship” law, marriage is just another “lifestyle choice”
along with other economically and emotionally interdependent
relationships comprising a kind of “family buddy system.”
If this sounds far-fetched, fetch again. This reports
shows how “close relationship” law moves in mysterious ways and often
gets imbedded in law incrementally, without debate, because it operates
under the public radar. The report cites secular chapter and verse where
the legal formality of marriage is in danger of being replaced by other
relationships described in mushy language as “indistinguishable from
marriage.” The result of such thinking undercuts the notion that a
mother and a father should be the standard for measuring the best
interests of a child, even if honored in the breach. Marriage has never
been easy. Sexual liberation has taken its toll. The Pill promoted
promiscuity and reduced birth rates, and illegitimacy continues to hit
poor young women hardest. Divorce is sometimes regarded as merely a form
of human recycling, but new research suggests that divorce is bad for
your health, which ought to get some couples to try harder to stay
together. Increasing numbers of young men and women are going into
couple therapy before they get married; children of divorce don't want
their children to go through what they did.
Through thick and thin (or even thin and thin), for
better and for worse, marriage as an institution continues to define
public norms that shape public attitudes and personal expectations. We
ought to keep it that way. Philosophers from John Locke to John Rawls
emphasize the importance of conjugal marriage for democratic society,
and most of us understand that children do best with a mother and a
So before we start tampering with our respect for traditional marriage,
we should pay heed to what we know that works.
If we don't want to do that for our selfish selves, we must do it for
the sake of the children.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist with The Washington
First published: 25 June 2005