Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Book Review: The Future of Marriage, Part II

This is a continuation of my book report on David Blankenhorn's anti-gay marriage book, The Future of Marriage.

In Part I of my review, I ended with this thought: What the definition of marriage is, to me, seems less relevant than the policy reasons for and against allowing gay people to get married. Specifically, I think it is more relevant, prudent, and important to ask "what are the pros and cons of gay marriage?" than "what is marriage?"

4. The Children

I have a hunch that Blankenhorn might agree. In fact, he describes the marriage debate as two sets of rights pushing up against each other: The rights of gay people versus the rights of children. I applaud his willingness to try to tease out "the threat" that gay marriage poses to society (ie- children), even though, ultimately, I disagree with his conclusion. Most people opposed to marriage equality speak greatly of the "threat" that it poses, but when pressed for more details are unable to articulate what the threat actually is.

Blankenhorn writes, that in "prehistory" "to increase the likelihood of survival and success, the human infant needs a father and the human mother needs a mate." (p. 35). He firmly believes: "For every child, a mother and a father." (p.91). But, does he explain and provide evidence for this buzz phrase? What does the phrase even mean? That having a mother and a father is the most important characteristic of a parental unit? More important, even, than saneness, ability to provide for the well-being of a child, or love, kindness and compassion?

Blankenhorn is smart enough to know that he will have to do better than making an unsubstantiated and "intuitive" claim that every child needs a mother and a father. And, he cites his friend David Popenoe as saying "Compared to all other family forms, families headed by married, biological parents are best for children." (p.123). At this point, I should note that Blankenhorn's cite for this quote comes from this "fact sheet" put out by his very own think tank. Looking at the "fact sheet," I find it, ahem, superficial and unsatisfying as the quotes are from other "fact sheets," newspaper articles, Blankenhorn's friends, and an unknown group of "sixteen social scientists" as opposed to scholarly articles.

But more importantly, he has committed the same fallacies that other anti-equality advocates are guilty of regarding what the research says about parenthood. He cites one researcher as saying "numerous studies have shown that individuals generally fare best both in childhood and in later life when they grow up with both of their biological parents" (p. 198). What he omits from his analysis is the fact that these numerous studies were comparing single motherhood to two-parent families.

Yet, as I wrote before "the research actually looking at same-gender families reveal no inherent deficits or adjustment problems when compared to opposite-gender families." The negative outcomes observed mostly come from "single motherhood" as they are compared to heterosexual married couples. Clearly, same-sex couples are not "single mothers" so it is illogical and dishonest to infer that children of same-sex couples will have similar negative outcomes that children of single mothers do. So, while "For every child, a mother and a father" (versus "For every child, two parents") may be intuitively appealing to him (and many) it isn't backed up in research.

His second argument as to why all children need a mother and a father is, basically this: All children should have a mother and a father because, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, all children have the right to be raised by their biological parents. "Parents," of course, meaning only biological mothers and fathers. Blankenhorn sees adoption and alternative reproduction as denials of "this basic birthright"- a birthright that is more important than and incompatible with the right of same-sex couples to marry.

I find Blankehorn's invocation of the the UN Convention troubling for several reasons. One, a sort-of tangential point, the US has not ratified the UN Convention. It's not law in the US. Two, he's again taking a descriptive statement and turning it into a normative one. For example: X is the law, therefore X should be the law. I don't want him to tell me what the law is, I want him to tell me why it should be that way. His argument is an appeal to a higher authority much like some argue "The Bible says gay people are wrong, so gay people are wrong."

But I see where he's trying to go. He believes that it is a violation of international human rights law for gay couples to raise their (non-biological) children. And with the phrase "human rights violation" all sorts of horrible things are invoked. But, let's stop, take a deep breath, and remember the research regarding gay parenting and what the actual harm is and is not. (Hint: More "is not" than "is"). As I said, I don't want him to tell me that it's a human rights violation, I want him to tell me why it is a human rights violation. What is so horrible about alternative reproduction and adoption that makes it a violation?

Blankenhorn, in his insistence that it's a human right for all children to be raised by their biological mother and father excludes from his reasoning the phrase "except when it is contrary to the child's best interests" and the UN's Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally, which, um, is more than a little relevant to the issue of what the international community says about adoption. This document says "The first priority for a child is to be cared for by his or her own parents" except "when care by the child's parents is unavailable or inappropriate." In the case of a child adopted by a gay couple, it's not like the gay couple is stealing the child from his or her biological parents. The biological parents are unavailable, unwilling, or unable to care for the child. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for the biological parents to raise the child. In the case of a child conceived via sperm/egg donor (and subsequently adopted by a same-sex partner), it would be inappropriate in most cases for the donor to raise the child with the other biological parent.

But more importantly, I think that Blankenhorn is interpreting the UN Convention literally and in a disingenuous manner. The UN Convention was written because: "children suffer from poverty, homelessness, abuse, neglect, preventable diseases, unequal access to education and justice systems that do not recognize their special needs" to address basic quality of life issues. It was written in recognition that "in all countries in the world, there are children living in exceptionally difficult conditions and that such children need special consideration." Like, you know, children who are soldiers, children who are sold into the sex business, and children who are unable to be reunited with their parents across borders.

And further, countries who have ratified this Convention are required to take steps such as passing laws and creating institutions to protect these rights of children. Yet, countries that allow gay couples to adopt also mysteriously (and in violation of human rights law?!) have ratified the UN Convention (Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, UK, etc.). They, apparently, do not see a conflict between the Convention and their legalization of gay parenthood. Although they do report extensively on steps they are taking to tangibly improve the lives of children far more important areas like poverty, HIV/AIDS rate, educational attainment, welfare, and substance abuse.

Frankly, it speaks of our privilege as a country when we are invoking this UN Convention to make the claim that gay parenthood in a relatively affluent country is morally equivalent to the human rights abuses the Convention was designed to address.

5. The Harm

In reading The Future of Marriage, I was most interested in the gut of his reason for opposing gay marriage: the alleged harm it would cause.

Blankenhorn argues that same-sex marriage would "threaten the institution of marriage in two fundamental ways" (p.201):

1. Allowing same-sex couples to marry would "deinstitutionalize" marriage from a pro-child social institution to a post-institutional private relationship.

Regarding this claim, if by deinstitutionalize he means marrying "for love" I hate to break it to Blankenhorn, but heterosexuals have already "deinstitutionalized" marriage all by themselves. [Stephanie Coontz recounts this in Marriage: A History.... Wait a minute... No wonder Blankenhorn doesn't like her book!] Coontz writes, "The demand for gay and lesbian marriage was an inevitable result of the previous revolution in heterosexual marriage. It was heterosexuals who had already created many alternative structures for organizing sexual relationships or raising children and broken down the primacy of two-parent families...." (In Marriage, a History).

Perhaps Blankenhorn would agree with this assessment, as his position is that gay marriage would then be the straw that breaks the camel's back- the final signifier that marriage has officially been de-institutionalized. The difference between Blankenhorn and Coontz is that Blankenhorn sees the deinstitutionalization of marriage as a "threat"- as a bad thing, and Coontz does not. Looking to countries that have legalized same-sex marriage, Blankenhorn cites "correlations" between legal gay marriage and other so-called social ills. Although he admits that correlation is not a cause and effect relationship, he strongly insinuates that gay marriage causes the weakening of marriage and other "social ills."

Blankenhorn ultimate goal, you see, is to halt and reverse the deinstitutionalization of marriage. He proposes many measures to "strengthen" marriage. Only one of which is to not allow gay people to marry. So, if these other non-gay-marriage related steps would strengthen marriage, isn't it true that the absence of these steps is weakening marriage? Which makes it odd that this self-described "marriage nut" devoted an entire book to a mere one of these steps.

What is also interesting is that marriage is sort of already in the shitter. We need to take concrete steps to fix marriage, according to Blankenhorn. Yet, note how "not allow gay people to marry" is a negative order. What? That's right. Gay people are not allowed to marry currently, and marriage is still in the shitter.

But you see, the other steps Blankenhorn mentions are actions that heterosexuals, married couples, and politicians would have to take. They are actual actions that people would have to take. Including mandating counseling, ending marriage penalties for low-income people, passing new laws offering financial and tax incentives for marriage, etc. I suppose no one, not even a "marriage nut," wants to be the guy to tell 90% of the population that they have to take concrete steps to strengthen marriage and that we as a society must raise taxes to strengthen marriage! Nope. It's much easier to simply advocate for banning gay people, an already unpopular group, from marriage, pat yourself on the back for defending marriage, and call it a day.

But really, I most definitely interested in why Blankenhorn wrote a book about strengthening marriage, casually admitted that many factors weaken marriage, yet primarily talked about gay marriage.

2. "Same-sex marriage would require us in both law and culture to deny the double origin of the child." (p.201). By "double origin" he is referring to men and women who procreate together. He says "Every child deserve a mother and a father" which, according to Blankenhorn, "almost everyone in the world has always assumed to be true."

Again, as a father, he may find it satisfying to believe that every child needs a mother and a father (particularly, a father!). And, he may believe that it's a violation of human rights to deny a child a mother and a father. But slapping the label "human rights violation" on a phenomenon doesn't erase the fact that the research shows that children raised by gay parents turn out just fine. As I already discussed, Blankenhorn's sole scientific evidence backing up his mostly-intuitive claim that all children need a biological father and mother does not support his conclusion.

He also argues conception via sperm/egg donation should be curbed, because the resulting child would not know or be raised by at least one if its biological parents. Which is true. But I have a hunch that the resulting child would have rather been born than not born, even if he or she did "have to" be raised by same-sex parents. Because implicit in arguments against alternative reproduction is this: a child is better off never being born if it is not raised by both of its non-biological parents. (Any children of divorced parents out there take offense to that, by the way?) Ultimately, to Blankehorn, the right to life seems conditional on his cookie-cutter version of "family."

More generally, however, I find a major fault with both of his claims regarding the "threat." Take a second to read them again. Both claims consist of mere descriptive sentences that are a bunch of conclusions stacked upon each other. They consist of glittering generalities and abstract, intangible "harms" that will result. If the threat is so real, and if Blankenhorn is so familiar with it, I find that he has not articulated his theory of harm in a real or tangible way. "For every child, a mother and a father." Okay, but why? Back that up. "Gay marriage will deinstitutionalize marriage." Okay, but how? Connect the dots. What does that tangibly mean to society and people's lives? And, why would that be a bad thing? This inability or unwillingess to really break down the specific harm we are facing is, unfortunately, all too common among those opposed to gay marriage. Yet, these vague, abstract propositions are easily accepted. Especially among those who already find gay people distasteful.


In the end, I'm glad I read this book. I feel that I better understand some of the concerns regarding same-sex marriage that have not been steeped in overt anti-gay prejudice and bigotry. Blankenhorn claims that he would support gay marriage were it not for the harm to children. Ultimately, I am left unconvinced that gay marriage harms children or would harm children. And, I wish that Blankenhorn would have devoted more of his marriage tome to (more than one of) the concrete steps that married people and our government could take to "strengthen marriage."

But beyond Blankenhorn, what do we do about the majority of anti-gay advocates who base their opposition to gay rights in hatred, fear, and intolerance?

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