At its heart, the debate about same-sex marriage is a debate about values. Not personal values about what one cherishes in a marriage—since private views can’t be used to set policy for others—but public values about how we define marriage and why it’s good for society.
We know from legal and historical evidence that marriage isn’t defined simply by childbearing, procreation, or the “procreative act.” Still, some argue that marriage is a bodily union “of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together,” even if no children are or can be produced. Ignoring criticisms that this “conjugal view” (a) devalues adoptive families and childless marriages as loopholes which society kindly overlooks and (b) fails to account for marriages in which no such bodily union can ever happen, one may still appreciate that the essence of this view is to celebrate the symbolic act of procreation. If producing offspring is how the human race survives, then perhaps we should preserve a representation of that mechanism in the form of marriage.
Yet that misses the reality of how human society is constructed around families. Families are indeed the building blocks of society, and marriages constitute the foundation for creating families. But although procreation brings (most) people into this world, what sustains them and gives them a place in society is social support from the care of their families. Marriage is the promise to provide that care, through the union of two individuals joining their families together to build a new family. It is the lifelong dedication of two people to care for each other. That union strengthens and supports society by providing a stable familial unit for social, legal, and economic relations, a function by which society’s members are accountable to each other.
This accountability derives from the public vow to care for one’s marriage partner and family, not from the ability to procreate. If the institution of marriage were to vanish the world over, the human species would still propagate. The rest of the animal kingdom manages to survive quite well without the legal and social customs of marriage. Without marriage, our social structures might look different, but we wouldn’t be in danger of extinction. The purpose of marriage isn’t to promote procreation, but to restrict it and promote commitment.
We don’t need marriage to help us reproduce, but to help stabilize our society.
Marriage stabilizes society by creating lasting ties within and between families, whether for a childless married couple or a large clan. With the greater community as witness, married partners pledge responsibility for each other’s well-being, their exclusivity unambiguously identifying who will represent their interests as next-of-kin. They inherit each other’s social obligations upon joining their families. Society honors marriage with multiple benefits, but we demand as much honor from the married couple. The taboo of divorce is the taboo of a broken promise, and emotional infidelity can be a graver violation than physical infidelity. The social demands of marital union go far beyond conjugal acts and serve valuable functions in themselves, not merely as precautions in case of children. What truly makes familial bonds endure are not the biological connections, but the social expectations.
We value family loyalties so highly that we attach stigmas to breaking them. We’re not favorably impressed by the fellow who fathers a dozen offspring and leaves them for others to raise. We’re impressed by the folks who took those children in and invested the hard work of raising them well. Bearing children isn’t what counts; rearing children is.
We label “illegitimate” and “bastard” children as such to ostracize their families for violating the social contract, not simply as a category for children with genetic ties to only one parent. In biological terms, they are no different from children of a widowed parent who later remarried. But in social terms, they are vastly different— because we have made them so, to maintain the special status our society grants to marriage.
We trade on the strength of the family bond in inventing a special brand of shame for those who transgress family expectations most seriously. To be disowned is not to be denied one’s genetic heritage, but to be denied one’s social standing in a family. Inversely, even the closest relative is not considered family if we do not realize how we are connected. Without the social honor and knowledge of belonging, the biological relationship means nothing.
What we truly value for our society to thrive isn’t the ability to create new people, but the lifelong devotion to care for those people, regardless of who created them. It’s not that procreation or the genetic connection is irrelevant. Yes, there are strong evolutionary reasons why we are more likely to care for those who share more genes with us. Biology matters—the maternal investment in a long gestational period, recognizing ourselves in others—because it gives us an incentive to provide for our kin and our offspring. But it is the social acts of acknowledging others as family and choosing to care for them that constitute the bond.
Procreation isn’t so special to humanity that we need to enshrine it—much less “the procreative-type act”—in our customs and laws protecting marriage. The duty to nurture one’s family is what matters. The significance of procreation for marriage is in its real, not symbolic, possibility of producing a child, due to the need to care for that child: If children are likely to be born, then they should be born into stable families, which marriage supports. It’s a reversal of logic to claim that if marriages are going to be created, they should be created only around situations where children are likely to be born. Marriage allows but does not require partners to procreate or simulate procreation; it requires their mutual consent and public commitment to provide for each other.
There are many ways to make a family. What they all have in common is the commitment to care. Marriage is our formal recognition of that bond between spouses. Its defining features and functions are fundamentally social: the public promise, the act of nurturing others, the joining of interpersonal networks. To honor and uphold marriage is to protect these mechanisms of family formation and social support. This is what it means to be true to marriage.
© Copyright 2011 Norma Ming. All rights reserved.
(Abridged version published in The Sacramento Bee on October 9, 2011, page 5E.)