John, you’re right that what I’m proposing wouldn’t resolve controversies over childrearing or whether same-sex couples should receive legal recognition identical to similarly situated heterosexual couples. If those questions could be resolved, there wouldn’t even be a debate over same-sex marriage. But it would, I think, do a better job of arriving at the compromise that many civil union supporters mistakenly think their preferred policy reaches: Making tangible benefits available to gays (and others) without devaluing marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Pensions, hospital visitation, the ability to easily share property and pool economic resources, bereavement — the desire for these and other benefits come up at least as often in these debates as issues involving children.
There are maybe 270,000 children in the United States who are being raised at least partly by same-sex couples, including some 65,000 who have been adopted and 14,000 in foster care. That sounds like a big number, but in the context of all Americans who are under 18 it is really not. So I’m not sure that gays are mainly, and certainly not exclusively, seeking the childrearing benefits of marriage. And I’m also not sure that this is a common enough practice that gay parenting studies, even when they are not biased or methodologically flawed (as Saletan concedes they often are), can predict confidently what the impact would be were it to become more widespread. Researchers didn’t always think it was “incontrovertible” that two parents were better than one or that divorce would have lasting impact on children.
Consequently, I’m skeptical that rewriting the basic assumptions of marriage to include artificial insemination and the involvement of third parties in conceiving children will bolster the connection between marriage and parenthood even if most gay people who currently raise children do a perfectly fine job. Some of the benefits of having two parents come from having a mother and a father, not just by being raised by the right number of people. Deleting such concepts as “father,” “mother,” “husband,” and “wife” from our legal vocabularies, as was attempted in Ontario and to a lesser extent Massachusetts, is likely to be harmful even if most of the objections to gay parenting turn out to be misguided. Because in the end, this is more a debate over the meaning of marriage than one over homosexuality.
Judges in California and Massachusetts may think all of these policy questions have been conclusively resolved, but I’m not sure the rest of the country feels the same way. In the meantime, we can try to offer more people benefits they need while we work out the marriage debate. For another conservative argument in favor of decoupling benefits from the definition of marriage, see this Ramesh Ponnuru article from a couple years ago.