Should only the best parents be allowed to marry?

A conventional argument against lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying can be expressed as follows:

What marriage primarily is, and what it has always been, is a mechanism to enable the procreation and the rearing of children in a safe, stable, and balanced environment. This is, by definition, a public rather than a private relationship, and it is something that creates a public good. It is for this reason, and essentially only for this reason, that the State recognises marriage as an institution.

Discussions about what’s fair for adults miss the point. From the point of view of the State, marriage has always been viewed as an essentially child-centred institution.

There’s a famous joke about an Orcadian in a Texas bar who sees a sign on the wall advertising “Best Scotch Whiskey Made In England” and tells the bartender “Six words, four mistakes.”

That’s how I feel about the ninety-five words I just quoted: almost too many mistakes to know where to start.

1. “What marriage has always been” is a statement bound to be false. There is no one thing that marriage “is and has always been”. Not even always mixed-sex.

There has been a huge redefinition of marriage in many countries over the past two centuries: the feminist revolution has worked towards completely redefining legal marriage away from the patriarchal institution where a wife lost her identity and her legal rights to her husband, into a relationship of equals. Once legal distinctions between husband and wife have been abolished, lifting the ban on same-sex couples marrying becomes a trivial change, certainly nothing compared to the vast changes in marriage since 1792.

2. “What marriage primarily is … is a mechanism to enable the procreation and the rearing of children in a safe, stable, and balanced environment.”
This is also false. A couple can marry without the inclination, intention, or ability to have children by any means. What marriage primarily is, is the creation of a relationship between two people which takes priority over every other relationship either of them has, and which lasts lifelong unless dissolved in a court of law.

3. “the rearing of children in a safe, stable, and balanced environment … something that creates a public good” This is true. The rearing of children is a public good. But it’s bizarre and absurd to make an argument that marriage exists to provide that environment and therefore some children do not deserve to have married parents because their parents are a same-sex couple. If a person is arguing that all children deserve married parents, there can be no possible excuse for their then arguing that some children’s parents must be banned by law from marriage. It’s pure homophobia, directed both against the parents and the children.

4. “It is for this reason, and essentially only for this reason, that the State recognises marriage as an institution.” The implications of this statement are that people can be allowed to marry when their marriage serves the State. This is a fascist way of thinking. To a non-fascist, the State serves us. “The sovereign right of the Scottish people” acknowledges the right of the people of the country to determine how we shall decide for the State. The State recognises marriage as an institution because we instruct the State to do so.

5. “Discussions about what’s fair for adults miss the point.” Not at all. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights discusses marriage for adults, and makes clear in Article 16 that:

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

I am an ex-Quaker atheist, and neither of my philosophical traditions take much account of the idea of blasphemy. But the use of the UDHR – that splendid declaration that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” – to argue the bigoted view that some members of the human family ought to be legally denied marriage because Article 16 specifies that marriage law must treat men and women equally? That strikes me as blasphemous. It is an outrageous violation of one of the great human texts.

6. “From the point of view of the State, marriage has always been”: Again, noting that “from the point of view of the State” there is nothing that marriage has “always” been: marriage law has changed profoundly in the past two centuries.

7. “viewed as an essentially child-centred institution”: False. Civil law has never required that a marriage produce children, nor that all of the children of either (or both) partners of the marriage be cared for by the married couple. In 21st-century UK, the care and support of children is not dependent on the marital status of their parents, and in 18th-century UK children did not belong to the marriage: they belonged to their father. (And the children of poor people too often belonged to the foundling home.)

Even so, and looking past all the mistakes, this all rests on two fundamentally homophobic ideas:

  • Marriage is a privilege reserved only for the best parents – heterosexual interfertile couples
  • Mixed-sex couples are just naturally better parents than same-sex couples

The idea that marriage is a privilege from which some people can and should be banned is explicitly condemned by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and also by a famous 1967 decision by the Supreme Court of the US which describes marriage as a right essential to “the orderly pursuit of happiness”, an expression which always fills me with a very British joy. (Happiness for all! But queue properly.) Christina Odone argued recently that marriage is a gated community which gay people can’t be allowed into (we’d just spoil the neighbourhood, bring the property values down).

The idea that marriage is a privilege for parents only is always used, with thorough hypocrisy, to justify banning same-sex couples from marriage when they have children, and to permit only mixed-sex couples to marry, even when it’s physically impossible for them to have children.

The idea that mixed-sex couples are the best parents is not borne out by scientific long-term studies of children raised by parents who are both male, both female, or man and women: same-sex couples have a slight edge because the children of same-sex couples tend to be planned and wanted children, but when this is corrected for, the best parents turn out to be… well, two lesbians.

The idea that marriage is only for the best parents, not for any inferior sort? Is this a reason for banning all couples except lesbians from marriage? Of course not. It doesn’t matter which combination of genders shows some statistical “best” for children. The idea of setting some standard by which the “best” parents can be recognised and denying all other parents the freedom to marry is clearly not “child centred”: it directly mandates that some children will have parents banned by law from getting married, because… er… they’re not as good parents and so don’t deserve to be allowed to marry?

What it comes down to, finally, is the basic fact: there is no argument against same-sex marriage that is not homophobic in origin.


Judging from one idiosyncratic sample: most supporters of the ban on same-sex marriage don’t even like their own ideas unless they’re wearing a familiar cloak and mask. Reading them bluntly deconstructed as above, he recoiled, asserting that he never meant any of that. Which gives me hope for the future.

He also banned me from commenting at his journal and refused to engage with me here. However, I still think it likely that after the ban on same-sex marriage is lifted (say by 10th December 2019, to give him about five years for it) he will realise that what he thought in 2012 was nasty nonsense.

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Filed under Human Rights, LGBT Equality, Women

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