Gay marriage opponents have bandied about plenty of arguments, but perhaps the most popular involves homosexuals’ inability to bear children. This school of thought concedes that every marriage involves an element of personal satisfaction — indeed, if getting married won’t make someone happier, he shouldn’t do it — but holds that the government is only involved because marriage undergirds our society’s future.
The pro-gay marriage response is, what about straights who can’t or won’t bear children? Shouldn’t we prevent them from marrying? To drive the point home, activists in Washington state have introduced an initiative to just that effect.
The government would require proof of fertility for each marriage license and annul childless marriages after three years. It’s a symbolic, draconian gesture few could seriously endorse, and the gay marriage crowd might even face a backlash. But when voters refuse to pass the initiative (or if the sponsors can’t get the necessary 224,000 signatures), the activists will conclude their opponents aren’t really concerned about children.
On closer inspection, though, the argument does not hold water. Banning childless marriage is consistent with the child-centric approach, but it poses practical problems that banning homosexual marriage does not. The activists have to show that (A) childless marriage is pervasive enough to warrant action and (B) this proposal is the best way to accomplish that.
The initiative fails on both counts. As such, it is intellectually honest to believe both that marriage exists because of children, and that banning childless heterosexual marriage is not a worthwhile endeavor.
There are several reasons childless marriage might hypothetically pose a problem. Such couples receive tax breaks, yet actually save money on living expenses and do not contribute offspring to society’s future. Also, many demographers (often conservatives) have pointed out that heterosexuals aren’t having enough kids.
In reality, childless marriage is rare though moderately increasing. There’s a plausible argument against tax breaks for the long-term childless, but the declining birth rate is more due to people remaining unmarried, waiting too long to get pregnant, or not having enough children, than to people marrying and having no children.
In Census surveys between 1970 and 1985, 6.1 to 8.6 percent of married women age 40 to 44 reported never having had children. In the 21st century, the figure has fluctuated between 12 and 13.4 percent. These numbers exaggerate the trend, as improvements in fertility (and demographic trends) mean more women bear children at older ages, and some of those surveyed could yet bear a first child: In 1976, 6.5 in every 1,000 women in this age group reported having a child in the last year, but in 2004 the number was 13.2.
At the younger end of the spectrum, and in spite of older average childbirth, more than two-thirds of married women ages 25 to 29 had children already in 2004. In many of the remaining third’s cases, undoubtedly, three years of marriage had not yet passed.
So taken seriously, the Washington initiative proposes testing every bride and groom’s fertility, and then following up three years later for record keeping, to control a rather minor abuse of government marriage. Without a professional review, it’s debatable whether the federal and state governments would even save more in taxes than taxpayers would spend on testing and bureaucracy.
(As a primitive yardstick, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that married couples making between $40,000 and $100,000 will save an average of $385 per year from Bush’s 2001 marriage tax relief, once it comes into full effect. Bear in mind the government would only save this money on the marriages it annulled, but each and every marriage would cost money in testing and record-keeping.)
Lastly, the three-year cutoff is arbitrary, to put it mildly. Plenty of couples wait longer than that to conceive, believing it’s important to establish a stable marriage before bringing children into the fray. (Disclosure: The writer, a first child, was born more than three years after his parents’ marriage.)
Given the difference in childlessness between married women in their 20s and those in their 40s, it seems this happens often. At the very least, it’s certainly not a practice the government should ban.
Gay marriage proponents have solid arguments at their disposal. For example, many have pointed out that marriage could help make homosexual relationships more stable. That’s a goal everyone should support. And time is on their side, even opponents agree — National Review’s Jonah Goldberg is wary of gay marriage but thinks it inevitable.
But activists should concede that such a move would meaningfully redefine the institution’s purpose. They should convince America that such a redefinition is a step forward, rather than trying to push the current definition to its logical extreme.
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