Defining Marriage

ManAndWoman

When marriage equality started becoming an issue, I thought it was a pretty silly question. I mean, why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to marry? In fact, when I first started researching this topic, I actually couldn’t find any rational arguments against gay marriage.

You probably know some of the foolish things opponents to marriage equality bring up: some say gay marriage should be illegal because homosexual couples cannot bear children, but of course, they now can through in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination. Also, I don’t see any of these people objecting to the marriage of a couple in which either partner is infertile. Another, more sinister claim is that gay couples cannot rear children effectively, but this has actually been proven false.

Clearly, these arguments are quite ridiculous. But, surprisingly, there is actually what looks like a great argument against gay marriage. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza writes that “State legislatures, drawing on tradition and appealing to the values of their constituents, have defined marriage in a very particular way”. He lays down the following list of features to define a marriage:

1. Marriage is between human beings

2. Marriage partners are of legal age

3. Marriage involves two partners

4. Marriage partners cannot be too closely related

5. Marriage is between a man and a woman

D’Souza argues that it is irrational to support the removal of one of the criteria while leaving the rest intact. The point is actually a good one; after all, if we look at the criteria presented, we can see they are all quite integral to the definition of marriage, right?

Actually, almost all of them are a bit arbitrary. When D’Souza writes that marriage must only involve humans, he jokes that otherwise, men will want to marry their dogs for government benefits. He actually touches at the central issue here, the issue of consent. While animals will likely never be able to give their consent to a marriage, if we came into contact with intelligent aliens whom we could understand and communicate with, there would really be no reason we shouldn’t be allowed to marry them.

Consent also underscores the necessity for feature #2 . If two five year olds wanted to get married, they wouldn’t understand what they were getting into. They couldn’t truly consent, from an intellectual standpoint as well as a legal one. We have to set the bar for this age-of-consent somewhere, and so it’s currently at 18. Really, at whatever age we recognize two people as being fully-fledged citizens of society is the age at which they should be legally allowed to marry. Luckily, people do typically tend to grow out of this restriction, so it’s not a big deal.

But what about the rest of the “defining” features of marriage? What exactly is wrong with incest and polygamy?

These are both intensely fascinating issues. For example, one of the key problems with polygamy is that it often leads to the abuse of young girls. A polygamous farm in our backyard housed 468. Unfortunately, many of the young girls there had entered into the marriages of some of the older men. Again, however, the key problem here is with age and consent; these girls were too young to truly understand the marriage contracts they were entering, and were manipulated. However, apart from this rather large blip, the rest of the children on the farm were doing well. Just as people mistakenly assume gay couples can’t raise children well, many also assume that polygamous households must have a terrible effect on children. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to an uncommon and misunderstood practice. If polygamy is regulated and conducted between adults, there is no reason to think the children of their union would be any worse off.

Another issue with polygamy is that of marriage rights. In current polygamous marriages in the United States (and there are estimated to be 100,000 people living in such households in our county, though some place that figure much higher), the key problem is that there is one legal wife, while the rest of the members of the marriage are “spiritual” wives, who get none of the benefits of the other members of the legal couple. Like the problem of the abuse of underage girls in polygamous marriages, the distribution of marriage rights can also be solved by making polygamy legal, because then all members of the marriage would be legally recognized.

Polygamy is also thought to disparage women, but if they are of age, we must assume that they know what they’re getting into. After all, it’s not as though members of straight marriages always get it right. A final issue with polygamy is that it’ll skew the ratio of single men to single women. A one to one ratio is optimal for society, and giving powerful men the ability to have multiple wives will surely screw that up for the rest of us, right? Now, there are cases of kings taking dozens of wives, but for non-royalty, the average number of extra wives (or extra husbands) taken up would likely be very small. We can in fact examine what has happened in nations that allow polygamy. India allows Muslims to be polygamous, yet under 6% of the Muslim population are involved in polygamous relationships. India actually is facing a gender ratio problem, but that is more a product of infanticide than polygamy.  So really, polygamy doesn’t seem to be all that bad for our gender ratio. Finally, judging by the amount of cheating that generally occurs in relationships, polygamy may actually be a more comfortable and natural situation for some currently monogamous people.

Even more controversial than polygamy is incest. Virtually every major religion and culture shuns this practice, and most holy books condemn it. (As an interesting side note, the Hindu objection to incest was so strong that they developed an elaborate system of gotras in an effort to ensure that incestuous marriages were avoided as far as seven generations down the road.)

The primary objection to incest between consenting adults is that of inbreeding. The claim is true; close relatives are more at risk to produce children with birth defects. However, is this really a reason to take away their right to wed?  We’ve already established that bearing children should not be a criteria by which whether or not people are afforded the right to marry. As discussed previously, there are alternative procedures to produce children for the educated incestuous couple. Furthermore, there are a whole host of factors that increase the risk of birth defects in children. People who have genetic disorders are more likely to pass their disorders on to their kids. Women over the age of 35 are more likely to produce children with Down Syndrome. Women who take drugs, alcohol, or medications while pregnant are more likely to have kids with birth defects. Heck, even the children of two white people or two black people are more likely to develop certain diseases! Yet all of these groups are allowed to marry and have children. So why shouldn’t incestuous couples be afforded the same privilege?

There are a handful of smaller objections to this practice, but they are as silly as the ones raised against gay marriage. According to most, incest (and homosexuality, and polygamy) is “unnatural”, but so are elevators, cars, air conditioning, showers, toilets, cell phones, and beds. People may also fear the repercussions of widespread incest.  And like polygamy, it’s not likely to become very popular because, well, Darwin. Admittedly, family ties could become slightly strained in families that include incestuous couples, but this can occur in interracial, inter-religious, or gay couples as well.

In the end, there really aren’t any good reasons to oppose gay marriage, polygamous marriage, and incestuous marriage.  If the parties involved are consenting adults, then they should have the right to marry, if they so desire. It’s okay if you’re disgusted by these practices. It’s okay if you personally don’t like it, or think it’s unethical. But it’s not okay to deny them their legal rights, because there aren’t any rational reasons to do so.

We’ve come a long way now, and so I thought we’d wrap up by revisiting the defining features of marriage laid out by Mr. D’Souza:

1. Marriage is between people

2. Marriage partners are of legal age

3. Marriage involves two partners

4. Marriage partners cannot be too closely related

5. Marriage is between a man and a woman

6. Marriage is between two people of the same race

7. Marriage partners cannot use contraception

8. Marriage partners can own property only in the name of the husband

9. Married couples cannot have abortions without the consent of the husband

10. Married couples must engage in an exchange in which the wife’s family pays the groom’s family in cash or gifts

…Wait a minute! Some of those weren’t there before! What’s with all these rules destroying the sanctity of our traditional marriages!? ….Ohh, so you’re saying that some of these features were removed, one at a time, from the legal definition of marriage? And it didn’t destroy the nation?

Hmm, guess it’s time to get with the times…

 


About Shrinidhi Rao :
Shrinidhi is a freshman business student at UT. He likes to write fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, and he hopes to eventually be a published novelist. He also loves cats and has two of his own, Goldie and Blackie.
View all posts by Shrinidhi Rao
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1 comment

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    Mar 26, 2014

    Reply

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