In the speech Phil linked to late last week, former McCain adviser Steve Schmidt is certainly respectful toward social conservatives — whose views on marriage are, for now at least, shared by a majority of Americans — unlike many proponents of his point of view. But ultimately I don’t think Schmidt follows his own advice to guard against changes in marriage’s definition being “lightly undertaken.”
Phil says he doesn’t see how Schmidt’s proposed redefinition of marriage would harm a third party. And in at least one sense he’s surely right: a relationship between two people generally doesn’t affect a third party. So why does government care about marriage at all? In large part because a sexual relationship between a man and a woman frequently creates third parties in the form of children. It is because of this fact, not some desire to punish same-sex couples, that marriage acquired its definition as a union between a man and a woman.
Marriage is only partly about the freedom to form a relationship with a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in the form of a government-issued license. It is also about imposing an intricate network of legal obligations, to one another and various third parties, on a group of people — husbands and wives, parents and children — who are going to have very different needs from one another. Some of these differences in need between men and women are based on social conventions. Others are at least as biologically rooted as sexual orientation. And some, like the variations in lifetime work patterns between women (who have babies) and men (who don’t), probably reflect a little of both. None of them, for the overwhelming majority of people among the 90-97 percent of our population that is heterosexual, are going away anytime soon.
It is for these reasons that government doesn’t just hand out marriage licenses, but also supplies (an admittedly diminishing) set of incentives to stay together. It is why government orders alimony and palimony payments, divvies up shared property, and usually dictates the terms of child custody when marriages fail. Marriage imposes these obligations because it is designed for couples who frequently intend and are overwhelmingly able to have children. And even those childless, elderly or infertile couples reinforce the principle of man and wife by their type of union. As David Frum once quipped, the fact that some corporations don’t turn a profit doesn’t alter the basic assumption in corporate law that corporations exist to make profits; the fact that some married couples are childless doesn’t alter the basic assumption in marriage law that marriages exist to form families.
The obvious response to all this: same-sex couples often have children too, and their families deserve the same kind of recognition. But same-sex couples don’t come by their children the same way a man and a woman do. To define marriage as totally unisex is to rewrite the basic assumptions of marriage to include anonymous sperm donors, rented wombs, sex with men or women outside of the marriage, multiple parenting arrangements by design, parental abandonment not in response to a tragic set of circumstances but by design, intentionally fatherless families, intentionally motherless families, and a system of adoption that prioritizes adult desires over the needs of children and proven stability of mother-father families. This isn’t inviting two men or two women to emulate Ozzie and Harriet; this is practically begging the institution of marriage to emulate the Octomom, at least in certain childbearing practices.
Maybe we as a culture don’t really give a damn about any of this. At the very least, we haven’t thought about it very carefully if the phrase “changing [marriage] to admit same sex unions” doesn’t sound to our ears a bit like “changing the NBA to admit football teams.” And since heterosexuals constitute the vast majority of people who don’t give a damn, with many of them already taking full advantage of all the revolutions in family life mentioned in the previous paragraph, we might reach the point where existing marriage law does more to offend our gay and lesbian fellow citizens than it does to uphold the traditional understanding of marriage.
We might be close to that point now. The only conservative case for same-sex marriage worth the name is a conservative case for acknowledging that there is nothing more government policy can do for the idea of traditional marriage.