‘The Economist’ debate: Single-sex marriage

Posted by Roger McShane on economist.com:

"Evan Wolfson: The denial of marriage is one of the harshest inequalities inflicted on lesbian and gay families—discrimination enacted by our own government. It hurts families struggling during tough economic times and punishes children by depriving their families of the critical safety-net and meaning that marriage can bring.

"Maggie Gallagher: For the majority of Americans, and most human cultures across time and space and history, marriage is the union of husband and wife. These sexual unions deserve their unique status, in law, culture and society, because they really are unique. They can make new life and connect those children in love to their mother and father.

"Moderator: Marriage has long been considered one of society's most fundamental institutions. But the nature of marriage is constantly evolving and the pace of change has increased in the past half century. In the West, we have seen the empowerment of wives, the acceptance of interracial marriage and a startling rise in divorce rates. Of more relevance to this debate, a growing number of countries have also allowed gay couples to wed. When The Economist came out in favour of marriage equality in 1996, no country gave homosexuals the full right of marriage. When we reiterated our argument eight years later, only two countries—Belgium and the Netherlands—had given full legal status to same-sex unions. Today ten countries fully recognise the freedom to marry.

"For supporters, marriage equality is the culmination of society's acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Moreover, it is a matter of equal rights. In America, for example, the Government Accountability Office has counted 1,138 statutory provisions that take marital status into account when determining benefits, rights and privileges. Proponents of gay marriage question why committed gay couples are treated differently from their heterosexual counterparts under these laws.

"Others, however, see marriage for same-sex couples as frivolous and potentially harmful to traditional marriage. Society and the state are primarily interested in marriage for the sake of children, so what stake do they have in a relationship that cannot produce them? They argue that the expansion, manipulation and trivialisation of marriage undermine this core institution.

"To flesh out these arguments, and introduce new ones, we have two passionate participants in America's debate over marriage equality. Arguing for the motion is Evan Wolfson, the founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry. Opposing him is Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organisation for Marriage.

"Mr Wolfson opens up the proceedings by noting the prominent Americans who have recently come out in favour of equality for same-sex couples. Indeed, support for  marriage equality in America seems to increase every year, but most polls still show greater opposition, and most referendums in support of marriage for same-sex couples have failed. Mr Wolfson says that 'there is no good reason' to continue excluding gay couples from marriage, but a plurality (and perhaps majority) of Americans obviously disagree. Are the benefits of including homosexual couples in marriage so compelling as to warrant ignoring the will of the people? And how does Mr Wolfson feel about civil unions, which more Americans are inclined to support?

"On the other side of the debate, Ms Gallagher argues that the 'key purpose of marriage in both law and culture' is the creation and raising of children. 'If gay unions are marriages, then this is no longer what marriage is about,' she says. But is this really the defining element of marriage? After all, barren women are allowed to marry. In fact, as Jonathan Rauch has pointed out, sterile heterosexual unions in America far outnumber homosexual ones. Do those relationships fall outside the marriage model?

"Gay adoption and artificial insemination also complicate Ms Gallagher's argument. While the presence of children would seem to qualify gay couples for marriage on her grounds, she adds that 'children need a mom and a dad'. The same assertion was made in defence of California's Proposition 8, but lawyers were unable to back up the claim in court. There have been numerous studies on the effects of child rearing by same-sex parents. Can Ms Gallagher point to any that support her position?"

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