Saturday, February 6, 2010

Replies to Heather McDonald's argument against marriage equality: Blaming gay parents - and heterosexual men programmed for sex without responsibility

This site's readers know that I seldom express my opinion. I depart from standard blogging practice because I prefer, as a law librarian, to provide legal news and commentary on the right to marry, and related guides to the law and legal literature.

I will hazard an opinion here. I say "hazard," because I will expand on commentary that already strikes me as completely decisive. John Culhane's has replied to Heather McDonald's argument against marriage equality in "Reengineering the Family" (02/01/10 National Review). I take the risk of adding to his reply.

McDonald claims that "gay marriage moves the separation of parental status and biology to the center of the marriage institution." She anticipates two types of harmful consequences to children.

First, by making parenthood a matter of "intent," same-sex marriage would somehow encourage heterosexual men to abandon their responsibilities as biological fathers. If gay and lesbian parents marry, their reliance on assisted reproduction would express the importance of parental intent over biological procreation. But then more men could invoke the pretext of "intent" to claim that they did not intend to become fathers when they had sex without contraception. And somehow that pretext would allow them to justify their behavior and gain public acceptance for it.

Second, men and women bring unique, and complementary, parenting benefits to children. But if same-sex couples can marry, "the sole argument potentially remaining for persuading fathers that they should raise their children — that children need two parents in the home — is easily disposed of: My baby momma is living with her mother."

Of course, infertile couples and same-sex couples already rely on assisted reproduction, and many children have been raised in single-parent households and households with step parents. In fact, experts in the Perry trial have disputed the extent to which the history of American marriage is a history of biological parenthood. (footnote 1) They have also disputed the alleged harms to child welfare from parenting by same-sex couples. (footnote 2) Nevertheless, McDonald believes that growing exceptions to the traditional family can not be made the rule, without imperiling the well-being of children. Gay marriage, she says, is the straw that could break the camel's back.

Culhane thinks that McDonald has instead made a "straw man" argument. He titles his reply, "It's Always the Gays." On the one hand, McDonald acknowledges that gay and lesbian parents will continuing raising children, and that same-sex marriage would afford these parents opportunity to preserve "one strand of traditional child-rearing arrangements." On the hand, same-sex marriage would bear exclusive responsibility for the destruction of these arrangements, at unacceptable cost to children. Culhane concludes that McDonald has set up a "straw man" of gay and lesbian parents pitted against the best interests of society. She blames them for "any imaginable" harms to children, whether or not they are the cause. Culhane also faults her for ignoring the costs to children of degrading their same-sex parents by banning same-sex marriage.

I find that McDonald attacks another "straw man" - a stereotyped, heterosexual male. On her account, heterosexual men are programmed to have procreative sex but to shirk their responsibilities as biological fathers. Society, she implies, should do nothing to encourage this tendency. But whether or not gay and lesbians marry, would otherwise irresponsible, heterosexual men have more or less incentive to become responsible, biological fathers? She says that "[t]oo many men now act like sperm donors: they conceive ... children [and] then largely disappear, becoming at best intermittent presences in their children’s lives. This phenomenon is increasingly common among the less educated, and dominates in the black community."

Reducing "many men" to de facto "sperm donors" risks reducing heterosexual men generally to an unflattering stereotype. In fact, if fathers - and mothers! - abandon or neglect their responsibility as biological parents, they do so for reasons other than the prospect of same-sex marriage. The divorce rate in America reached just over 40% before the first same-sex couples could marry, and, in some states, serial divorce represents an emerging trend. Moreover, supporting parental responsibility depends on making child welfare an urgent priority, one that demands commensurate public resources. Especially in impoverished communities, families of all kinds would benefit from public services and protections that increasingly are lacking. These include improved education, nutrition, job training, public transportation and access to good medical care; more affordable housing and child care; expanded opportunity for a dignified livelihood; greater protections in the workplace and against crime and discrimination; and cleaner air and water.



See testimony by historian Nancy Cott on day 2 of the trial, at transcript page 226:

"But, rather, that the purpose of the state, as I began to say before, and the incentives given to marriage were much broader than this, in the aim to create stable and enduring unions between couples, and so that they would support one another, whether or not they had children, and that they would support the broad range of their dependents. Biological children, but others ... In the longer history of the United States, what we now call blended families and often think of as a contemporary innovation, such families were extremely common in the past because of early death and remarriage. "


See testimony during day 5 of the trial.

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