Avoid this concept in defining marriage: 'Natural'

  • Article by: MICHAEL RODNING BASH
  • Updated: November 2, 2012 - 8:04 PM

That has been the go-to word in attempts to guard the status quo.

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Counterpoint

The notion that marriage is primarily about sex and procreation is featured prominently in Richard Berquist's Nov. 1 commentary ("Gay marriage would actually discriminate"). Prominent as well is an appeal to what the University of St. Thomas professor says is "natural" in defining marriage. Be careful.

There should be no place in our public debate for an appeal to the authority of what is thought of as "natural." Natural has a fairly checkered past. Too often, it is simply a defense for the social hierarchy prevailing at any given time.

When we were ruled by kings, the powers that be told us that the divine right of kings was natural. We got over it. When slavery existed in this country, natural again lent its support. Witness this statement by James P. Holcombe, a professor of law at the University of Virginia in 1858:

"If ... a system of personal servitude gave reasonable assurance of preserving the inferior race, and gradually imparting to it the amelioration of a higher civilization, no Christian statesman could mistake the path of duty. Natural law, illuminated in its decision by History, Philosophy, and Religion, would not only clothe the relation with the sanction of justice, but lend to it the lustre of mercy. It will not, I apprehend, be difficult to show that all these conditions apply to African slavery in the United States."

We are still living under the shadow of that one. The lesson is that we should always be wary of claims that something is or is not natural.

Our beliefs regarding what is natural about the institution of marriage have varied and evolved over the centuries. There was a time when the main point of marriage was to produce male heirs. Genesis tells us that when Abraham's wife didn't produce a male heir, Abraham had sex with a slave woman who bore him a son. Apparently both sex outside the bonds of marriage and slavery (see above) were seen as natural at that time. We no longer regard them the same way.

Since then, women have been "married off" for convenience, for property and for family alliances. Until recently, marriage meant that a woman's property became the property of her husband. He could dispose of it as he saw fit, without her consent. This was in the natural order of things. We've rejected those ideas, too.

But beyond any appeal to what is or is not natural, the biology of procreation is hardly a basis for defining marriage. Along with changes in the relationship between husband and wife, we've made changes in how children come into a family. Adoption, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and blending families with children from prior relationships are all relatively new ways in which a next generation comes into being and is raised. Families created in these various ways have been, are being and will be parented by both gay and straight alike. It is in society's best interest to ensure that they all receive the support they need to thrive.

Marriage is defined by a society in ways that serve the ends of that society, whether it be the society of Father Abraham or the United States in the 21st century. The question before us with this so-called marriage amendment is whether it is preferable for some parents and their children to live under conditions of invisibility and discrimination, or under conditions of equality.

It is difficult to imagine a good-faith argument that society is better off when certain children grow up with parents who are denied access to the social and legal resources and benefits that other parents and their children enjoy.

Our real interest, society's real interest and the interest of all parents lies in fostering and supporting stable, long-term relationships, whether gay or straight.

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Michael Rodning Bash is a Minneapolis attorney. To read more marriage amendment commentaires, go here.

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