Sunday, February 24, 2008

Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage: What is at Stake?

There are good people on either side of the same-sex marriage debate. Unfortunately, however, it has been one of the most divisive issues in society. Opponents of same-sex marriage perceive the other side as part of a cabal of gay activists and social-engineering judges and politicians, intent on making a mockery of important social values. Proponents of same-sex marriage often perceive the other side as "homophobic" bigots or religious fundamentalists who want to deprive gay or lesbian couples of a right enjoyed by others because they hate homosexuals.

The debate over same-sex marriage has divided people who share common values and beliefs on many fundamental questions--war and peace, economic security, democracy versus the increasingly anti-democratic and repressive nature of American society. This divisive debate cripples the ability of ordinary Americans to unite around the things that we agree on. Many people who describe themselves as liberals or leftists unfortunately use the issue as a litmus test, and treat anybody who does not support same-sex marriage as an enemy. This article attempts to turn a divisive debate into an evidence-based discussion in which both sides appreciate the fundamentally decent values that motivate the other side.

There are reasons why negative perceptions of people on the opposing sides in this debate prevail.

Opponents of same-sex marriage typically do not give persuasive reasons for their opposition. Often they simply cite the Bible or make vague declarations to the effect that same-sex marriage is "obviously crazy" or "against nature." Many of them seem to feel that everybody already knows what's wrong with same-sex marriage, or should know, and those who don't already know never will, so rational arguments are not called for.

Proponents of same-sex marriage, knowing that large majorities have voted against same-sex marriage in statewide referenda (2004 election: Arkansas 75%, Georgia 76%, Kentucky 75%, Michigan 59%, Mississippi 86%, Montana 67%, North Dakota 73%, Ohio 62%, Oklahoma 76%, Oregon 57%, and Utah 66%) try to keep the question off the ballot, hoping that judges will make it legal by a court ruling, as happened in Massachusetts, the only state where it is legal today. In so doing, they have appeared to the other side as a social-engineering elite contemptuous of the central idea of democracy--that ordinary people are fit to entrust with the important decisions in society.

There are also reasons, however, why these negative perceptions of people--on both sides of the issue--are unfair and misleading.

Proponents of same-sex marriage presumably don't think of themselves as elitist social engineers. They simply believe that, as they put it, "It's wrong to vote on rights." They see no reason to oppose same-sex marriage other than bigotry, and think it is as wrong to let people vote away same-sex couples' right to marry as it would be to let people vote away the civil rights of racial minorities or to vote against allowing mixed race couples to marry. It's not that they are against democracy; it's just that they are for fairness and justice even more.

On the other side of the debate, people are not the irrational fundamentalists they are portrayed as. Take the fact that opponents of same-sex marriage often cite the Bible as their reason. Does this show that they have no rational basis for their beliefs because they believe anything if only the Bible says so? If somebody cites the Bible against same-sex marriage, does he or she also believe that, to take examples from sarcastic put-downs of such people, it is ok to "possess slaves, both male and female," as long as they are purchased from neighboring nations (Leviticus 25:44), or that one should put to death one's neighbor if he works on the Sabbath, as prescribed in Exodus 35:2? Clearly, people who cite the Bible against same-sex marriage do not believe in Biblical authority in general. People pick and choose from the Bible to defend only things that they believe independently of the Bible. People don't believe in slavery so they don't cite the Bible in support of it. They do oppose same-sex marriage and so they cite the Bible on that topic.

Typically a person who selectively cites the Bible against same-sex marriage may have reasons that he or she cannot articulate well. People are not used to spelling out clearly why they believe ideas (like the rightness of the Golden Rule or the wrongness of same-sex marriage) that for thousands of years of human history have not required defending.

Does society have a legitimate interest in defining who may marry?

Is there anything about marriage that makes it legitimate for society to legislate who can and who cannot marry? After all, nobody says that society should legislate who can be friends with each other, or who can be business partners with each other. So what concern is it of society who marries each other?

The answer to this question, as almost everybody agrees, is that, in contrast to a friendship or business relationship, a marriage relationship can (which is not to say "should") produce children, and society has a legitimate concern with the interests and welfare of children. The point is simply that there is only one fact about a marriage relationship that both distinguishes it from other kinds of relationships and gives society a legitimate reason for legislating who may enter into this relationship (i.e. marry each other), and that is its potential for producing children with society's formal approval.

When society allows people to marry it is endorsing their right to "have a child of their own" (which used to be equivalent to the right to have sex.) All of the benefits society confers on married couples are essentially ways that society promotes and encourages certain potentially child-producing relationships.

Thus, the reason society does not let siblings marry is because it is concerned that the children produced by such a marriage are at a higher risk of genetic harm.* The reason nobody objected when the British government recently ordered the dissolution of the marriage of a man and woman, who found out only after they married that they were siblings separated at birth, is that virtually everybody believes that the welfare of children trumps the desires of adults. Nobody believes that the prohibition of sibling marriage is motivated by hatred of siblings. By the same token, society has no objection to siblings being friends or business partners--relationships that are not called marriages for the simple reason that they are not relationships within which people have society's formal approval to "have a child of their own."

It is not logical to dismiss the entire question of whom society should allow to marry by declaring, as some do, that, "The government should not be involved with marriage at all--it's a private (or religious) issue that is none of the government's business." Even those who think the government should stay out of people's private affairs would surely agree that it is proper for the government to protect the weakest members of society, and that when people harm the weakest members of society then it is, by definition, no longer a "private" affair but a public one. No reasonable person, for example, would argue that the government should not prevent people from molesting their children or abusing their frail and elderly parents on the grounds that these are "private" family affairs. By the same token, nobody who believes that the children of siblings are at higher risk of genetic harm would argue that the government should not prevent siblings from marrying, on the grounds that "marriage is none of the government's business."

When society allows same-sex couples to marry, it is, therefore, officially endorsing their right to "have a child of their own." But such couples can only do this by means of test-tube conception, by which term I am referring to babies conceived by means of donated (often anonymously) sperm or egg. This method of conception necessarily entails depriving the child of a normal family connection (and often of any connection whatsoever) with its biological mother or father in order to satisfy the desires of a homosexual couple who cannot naturally conceive on their own. Making same-sex marriage legal therefore means giving formal social endorsement of this practice. If test-tube conception is harmful to children, and if we agree that the welfare of children trumps the desires of adults, then it follows that society should not make same-sex marriage legal.

The question then becomes, is a child harmed by being deprived of a relationship with its biological mother or farther?

The Psychological Pain and Damage Due to Being a Test-Tube Baby

There has never been a thorough public discussion about the possible harm to children caused by their being conceived as a test-tube baby. We all agree that society should protect its weakest members, especially children. But we haven't yet, as a society, thoroughly discussed or decided how to apply this principle to the question of test-tube babies. (Go here for some background facts and statistics about test-tube babies in the United States and other countries.)

There is considerable evidence of the psychological harm done to children by being deprived of a connection to one of their biological parents by virtue of their being test-tube babies.

Ellen Singer, LCSW-C, at The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc., in her article, "Talking with Children Conceived Through Donor Insemination, IVF with Egg Donor or Surrogacy," writes about the "painful feelings" that a test-tube child will naturally have:

"Just as an adopted child may wish he had been born to his adoptive parents, a child conceived with donor assistance may experience a sense of loss that he is not biologically/genetically related to both parents. Rather than protecting children from painful feelings through secrecy, parents who disclose information need to believe that children can be helped to cope with painful feelings."

Katrina Clark, in her Washington Post article, "My Father Was an Anonymous Sperm Donor," writes about "the puzzle of who I am." She writes, "I'm 18, and for most of my life, I haven't known half my origins. I didn't know where my nose or jaw came from, or my interest in foreign cultures. I obviously got my teeth and my penchant for corny jokes from my mother, along with my feminist perspective. But a whole other part of me was a mystery. That part came from my father. The only thing was, I had never met him, never heard any stories about him, never seen a picture of him. I didn't know his name. My mother never talked about him -- because she didn't have a clue who he was." Ms. Clark tells us that she feels harmed by being a test-tube child:

"I was angry at the idea that where donor conception is concerned, everyone focuses on the "parents" -- the adults who can make choices about their own lives. The recipient gets sympathy for wanting to have a child. The donor gets a guarantee of anonymity and absolution from any responsibility for the offspring of his "donation." As long as these adults are happy, then donor conception is a success, right?

"Not so. The children born of these transactions are people, too. Those of us in the first documented generation of donor babies -- conceived in the late 1980s and early '90s, when sperm banks became more common and donor insemination began to flourish -- are coming of age, and we have something to say.

"I'm here to tell you that emotionally, many of us are not keeping up. We didn't ask to be born into this situation, with its limitations and confusion. It's hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won't matter to the "products" of the cryobanks' service, when the longing for a biological relationship is what brings customers to the banks in the first place.

"We offspring are recognizing the right that was stripped from us at birth -- the right to know who both our parents are."

Ms. Clark makes a powerful point when she notes that a child's longing for a biological relationship can hardly be dismissed as unimportant when it is precisely such a longing by adults that "brings customers to the [sperm] banks in the first place."

Another child of donor insemination writes of her feelings in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) in her article, "How it feels to be a child of donor insemination." She describes how, as a pre-teen she fantasized about her biological father being a famous star or a prince, but that "As the turbulent teenage years passed the fantasy lost its appeal. I began to think increasingly about where I came from and became angry that I had been deprived of what I believe are my basic rights." She explains that,

"I thought more about my genetic father, a welcome distraction from the tedium of revision. I would stare in the mirror analysing features that I had not inherited from my mother. I would scour faces in the street, in the supermarket, and at school, desperately searching for similarities in others—older men could be my father, people my age my half siblings. I lived in a surreal world wondering if one of the men passing or teaching me was my genetic father. All I wanted was some information, not necessarily to meet him and never for him to feel any obligation towards me.

"I am curious about him—he provided half my genes and I have a natural desire to know about my biological origins. I am fascinated to find out more. Why did he donate? What does he look like? What are his interests, his job? Who knows, he might want to know more about me."

Adopted** children provide more insight into the kind of suffering that is caused when a person does not know his or her biological parents, no matter how loving the adopting parents may be. One such adopted child, Betty Jean Lifton, as an adult wrote Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. She recounts:

"As I played my role of the good daughter--repressing a natural need to know where I came from--I was unaware that the secrecy inherent in the adoption system was shaping and constricting the self through which I organized my perception of reality...Having repressed my real feelings, I was not consciously aware of my pain. And as a consequence, I was not consciously aware of myself, except as someone unreal pretending to be real. I did things that my human friends did, even looked real in my high school and college graduation pictures, and in the photographs taken at my wedding..." [pp. 4-5]

"Why," Lifton asks, "do adopted people feel so alienated? Why do they feel unreal, invisible to themselves and others? Why do they feel unborn?" [pg. 7]

Brian, the 17 year old son of a surrogate mother, writes online, in an extremely moving and powerful article, how angry he is at being sold, as he views it, by his mother.

"My name is Brian and I am the son of a traditional surrogate, a biological father, and an adoptive mother. I think all of you here need to know how I feel about surrogacy...

"How do you think we feel about being created specifically to be given away? You should all know that kids form their own opinions. I don’t care why my parents or my mother did this. It looks to me like I was bought and sold. You can dress it up with as many pretty words as you want. You can wrap it up in a silk freaking scarf. You can pretend these are not your children. You can say it is a gift or you donated your egg to the IM. But the fact is that someone has contracted you to make a child, give up your parental rights and hand over your flesh and blood child. I don't care if you think I am not your child, what about what I think! Maybe I know I am your child. When you exchange something for money it is called a commodity. Babies are not commodities. Babies are human beings. How do you think this makes us feel to know that there was money exchanged for us?

"Lets look at this from our point of view. Here is our biological mother our flesh and blood the woman who would naturally be raising and loving us totally denying that we are her child. I’m sorry but you just can't do that. We are your kids. We’re your kids just as much as your own kids, but yet you only think of us as some sloughed off egg that you are giving to a substitute mother who no matter how much love she has just can’t be the same as you? For 25 thousand dollars or whatever? You don’t bond with us when you are carrying us and you deny that we are yours because you have deluded yourselves and deny who and what we really are. That is so totally not right that I can’t believe anyone would think this is normal! And why are you doing this? For the most part its money from what I understand. Some of you have already admitted that in other posts. Would any of you do it if you did not get compensated for it? Or maybe if you didn’t get that feeling of belonging or acceptance that you never had as a kid? How do you think that makes us kids feel? You may be able to deny us but we don’t want to deny who you are. That makes us feel very rejected. That leaves a hole in our hearts whether we admit to it or it manifests some other way like in depression or a fear of getting close to someone else.

"Sometimes it doesn't show up until we are in our teens or young adults and like me sometimes it shows up as a baby when I scream my head off for 6 weeks and they call it colic. They call it stomach gas or an immature neurological system. Nothing can console us. Bull. The truth is that nobody is able to explain it because babies can’t talk. It’s the only way a baby knows how to express itself and its rage and grief and morning is to scream. I wanted my mother and she wasn’t there. I just had to accept it after a few weeks so I quit crying. Just wait. The evidence of babies having stress and knowing who their mothers are at birth is just beginning to come out. You can’t just substitute mothers and expect us to be okay with it. You can have all the love and good intentions in the world but that doesn’t make it okay with us."

Note that the kind of pain these individuals (and many more) describe, due to the broken bond between themselves and their biological parent(s), is not something that would necessarily be manifested as an obvious failure to thrive, or in behaviors such as poor school performance or criminality etc. that would be easily measured by social statistics and written about by academic researchers. And yet the pain is nonetheless real.

Scientific sociological studies also provide insight into another aspect of the harm that is done to children when they are not raised by both of their biological parents.

In "The Impact of Family Disruption in Childhood on Transitions Made in Young Adult Life" by Kathleen E. Kiernan in the peer-reviewed journal Population Studies [Vol. 46, No. 2 (Jul., 1992), pp. 213-234], results are presented from a major longitudinal study of 17,000 children born in 1958 in Britain. The study assessed, among other things, the effect on children of being raised in a family with one biological and one step-parent versus two biological parents. Of note, this study took into account that there are economic and other influences that may make a step-parent family different from a traditional one, and so the outcomes for children in various family structures were compared to one another only after "controlling" for these extraneous factors. The study reports "Young men from step-families were more likely to form partnerships and become fathers at an earlier age than their contemporaries from intact or lone-mother families. For young women from both step and lone-parent families the propensity to form unions in their teens, to have a child at an early age and to bear a child outside marriage was higher than for those who came from intact families."

In the peer-reviewed journal, Pediatrics ["Household Composition and Risk of Fatal Child Maltreatment", Vol. 109 No. 4 April 2002, pp. 615-621], Michael N. Stiffman, MD, MSPH et al report results from a case-control study to evaluate household composition as a risk factor for fatal child maltreatment, using data from the Missouri Child Fatality Review Panel system, 1992-1994. They report that "Children residing in households with adults unrelated to them were 8 times more likely to die of maltreatment than children in households with 2 biological parents."

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson at the Department of Psychology, McMaster University (Canada) write in "The 'Cinderella effect' is no fairy tale" that "we proposed long ago that step-parents might be over-represented as child abusers, and analyzed U.S. data, which confirmed the hypothesized overrepresentation. [Wilson, M.I. , Daly, M. and Weghorst, S.J. (1980) "Household composition and the risk of child abuse and neglect," J. Biosoc. Sci. 12, 333-340]...In reality, there are now dozens of confirmatory studies. In one striking example, we reported that the rate of fatal beatings of Canadian preschoolers by (putative) genetic fathers between 1974 and 1990 was 2.6 per million children at risk per annum, whereas the corresponding rate for stepfathers was 321.6 per million [Daly, M. and Wilson, M. (2001) "An assessment of some proposed exceptions to the phenomenon of nepotistic discrimination against stepchildren," Ann. Zool. Fennici 38, 287-296]."

The importance of large-sample studies like these is that they tell us about differences, on average, between children raised by both biological parents versus one biological and one step-parent, and they provide evidence that, on average, children from intact families fare better. Of course some children from intact families fared worse than some children from step-parent families, and vice versa. But whenever a social policy decision needs to be made, we make it by comparing a typical or average result for one choice versus a typical or average result from the alternative choice; we don't compare the best result from one versus the worst result from the other and choose the worst alternative on the grounds that, "some people do better with that choice than some people did with the other choice."

Results like those from these studies suggest that it matters whether a child's parent is the biological parent or not. Granted, these studies did not compare same-sex parents of test-tube babies to traditional parents. One could speculate that conclusions about step-parents versus biological parents drawn from these studies might not apply to a same-sex couple in which the non-biological parent (the step-parent) participated in the decision to use a test-tube baby conception. But the fact remains that the widely held perception--that biological parents, on average, care more about a child than a non-biological parent, and that, no matter how loving a step-parent is, children develop a healthier frame of mind, on average, when they are raised by their biological parents than when they are not-- is consistent with large-sample scientific studies. And the assertion that some people make--that biology counts for nothing in determining the benefit or harm a child experiences from having an adult in a parental role--seems to be contradicted by the data.

There is certainly sufficient evidence that test-tube babies are harmed by this method of conception to warrant a serious public discussion of the matter, and to conclude that it is too early for society to formally endorse or in any way promote the practice of bringing children into the world by means of donated sperm or egg.

We Need A Rational, Evidence-Based Public Discussion of Same-Sex Marriage

We need people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate to focus some of their attention on the question of test-tube baby conception and its connection to the marriage question, and try to reach an informed conclusion on this topic, based on evidence and logical reasoning, that gains the respect of most people, even if not their full agreement.

We need the anti-same-sex marriage side to do more than cite the Bible or simply assert that same-sex marriage is just plain wrong and crazy. We need the pro-same-sex marriage side to acknowledge that there are reasonable grounds for doubting the wisdom of legalizing same-sex marriage that have to do with a concern for the welfare of children, not bigotry, and that these concerns need to be addressed. A discussion along these lines would be unifying, not divisive.

Part of the reason why such a discussion is not happening is that the corporate/government elite don't want it to happen. They use divide and rule to strengthen their power over the rest of us in society, and they have discovered that the same-sex marriage question can be used to turn people against each other. When people try to discuss same-sex marriage along the lines proposed above, they find their views barred from the letters-to-the-editor page, or the op-ed page of their newspaper. Name-calling and other irrational arguments, on the other hand, are given plenty of exposure.

The fundamental problem is that we don't have a real democracy. If we did have real democracy we'd have, among many other very important things, the opportunity to discuss important issues with each other in a constructive manner. Our mass-media would promote this, not obstruct it.

It is high time that people on opposite sides of this and other critical questions that confront us as a society come together to find a common ground of mutual respect and support to discuss and deal with them.


* I am introducing the topic of sibling marriage and genetic harm to children from such a marriage merely to illustrate that laws about who can marry are motivated by a concern for children; I am not suggesting that genetic harm to children is a concern in same-sex marriage.

** I am introducing the topic of adoption merely to illustrate some of the consequences for children of the bond between them and their biological parents being broken. I am not suggesting here that same-sex couples should not be allowed to adopt a child. Nor am I suggesting that there is anything wrong with people adopting a child whose biological parents are, for some unfortunate reason, unable or unwilling to raise the child.

A key difference between adoption and test-tube baby conception is this. In the former case the adopting parents are in no way responsible for whatever breaks the bond between the child and its biological parents; the cause is something like the death of the biological parents, or their physical or mental incompetence to raise the child, or their refusal to raise it, or extreme poverty etc. In the latter case, however, the couple themselves are the cause of the broken bond between the child and one of its biological parents because their decision to conceive a test-tube baby is, necessarily, a deliberate decision to break that bond.

Another difference between adoption and test-tube baby conception in relation to marriage is this. Adoption doesn't create the child, it merely is a way that people help a child who already exists (and who cannot, for some unfortunate reason, be raised by its biological parents.) Test-tube conception, in contrast, creates a baby. It is because of this difference that marriage--a relationship that society reserves for people whom it approves creating a child--is not a requirement for adopting a child but is a requirement for having society's formal approval and encouragement to create a child. Anybody, married or not, can receive society's approval and encouragement to adopt a child, for example a single grandmother adopting a grandchild whose parents cannot raise it.