Essay: Redefining marriage would transform its purpose

2013-04-19T00:23:00Z 2013-05-07T06:32:25Z Essay: Redefining marriage would transform its purposeJenet Jacob Erickson Daily Herald
April 19, 2013 12:23 am  • 

Editor's note: This is a personal essay from Jenet Erickson, a former BYU School of Family Life professor.

One of the most painful parts of the same-sex marriage debate is the accusation that those who oppose same-sex marriage must be blinded by bigotry. If that were true, it would make bigots of all 40 million who supported Proposition 8 in California, all individuals in the 38 states that have adopted marriage amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and President Obama himself, who until 2012 opposed same-sex marriage. Any discussion about same-sex marriage must begin by recognizing that there are people on both sides of this debate who sincerely believe in respecting all human beings and preventing all forms of violence and hatred.

At the heart of this debate is whether marriage should be redefined to include any two adults, rather than a man and a woman. To gay marriage advocates, this would result in "marriage equality" or "freedom to marry" for gays and lesbians. Certainly, there is a place for discussing how society should respect a minority of its citizens who feel marginalized. But marriage involves more than just the adults who marry. Because marriage involves children, society has a deep and abiding interest in how it affects them.

Some question whether government should be involved in marriage at all. But consider for a moment what it would mean for children if marriage were left only to churches. There would be no laws ensuring that mothers abandoned by their husbands received child support or alimony. Underage or incestuous marriages would not be prohibited. And, in an increasingly secular society, fewer and fewer people would choose to be married at all. All of these scenarios would result in significant societal problems requiring even more government involvement.

So how does society protect children through marriage? Marriage ensures children's rights to be reared, as much as possible, by both their father and mother. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would inherently transform this meaning. Instead of being defined by its importance in connecting children to their co-creators -- their mother and father -- marriage would instead be defined as only a loving, emotional bond between adults.

If an "intense emotional bond" now becomes the defining feature of marriage, a child's right to be reared by the mother and father who brought him or her into being is denied. And the reality that children need the different and essential qualities of both men and women is also denied.

Children need more than just two parents, even two loving parents. Love is not all that is needed to make a family. As has been said, "all the love in the world can't turn a mother into a father or a father into a mother." As a mother, I know that my love cannot replace the unique influence and protection of my children's father. And their father knows that no matter how much he tries, his love could never replace the tender nurture of their mother.

Decades of research show that children not raised by their married biological parents (e.g., divorced, step-parent, cohabiting) "have, on average, twice the levels of risk, twice as many problems." Although there are few scientifically rigorous studies on the effects of same-sex parenting, recent studies of larger samples suggest similar cause for concern.

If marriage is redefined to simply be a commitment that involves an intense emotional bond, there is also no reason to assume that marriage should be restricted to only two people, or that it should be sexually exclusive. That explains why "300 LGTB and allied" scholars and advocates call for legalizing sexual relationships involving "more than two partners." It also explains why Andrew Sullivan, a proponent of the so-called "conservative case" for same-sex marriage who acknowledges that sexual exclusivity is not the norm among gay partners, argues that the sexual "openness" of same-sex unions could enhance the bonds of husbands and wives because it recognizes "greater understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman."

Regardless of the sexual orientation of their parents, such a shift in marital norms inherently undermines the ability for children to be reared in the stable, mother-father structure that is so fundamental to children's development.

Knowing this, we must all recognize that we do not have to be against anyone to be for marriage. It is not bigotry to ensure that, as much as possible, a child be reared by his or her married mother and father. In the words of Maggie Gallagher, we must all work together to help build marriages "strong enough that a child's heart can rely on them."

Jenet Erickson is a former BYU School of Family Life professor.

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