March 2006

First published in Between the Lines on March 23, 2006.

In his nationally syndicated column of March 17, Charles Krauthammer uses the HBO series “Big Love” (about a modern-day polygamist family in Utah) as a springboard to telling gay-rights advocates “I told you so.”

Krauthammer writes:

In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement—the number restriction (two and only two)—is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.

This is what we philosophy professors call a “non-sequitur,” which is a very fancy way of saying that the conclusion doesn’t follow, which is a moderately fancy way of saying “Not!”

To see why, suppose I were to define marriage as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender of (3) the landowning upper class. And suppose you were to argue (correctly) that the third requirement is arbitrary. It would not follow that either of the other two requirements is similarly arbitrary. The moral of the story: each element of the legal definition of marriage must be judged on its own merits.

That fact hasn’t stopped otherwise intelligent people—including Krauthammer—from invoking the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamous marriage. If you advocate any change to our understanding of marriage, they warn, then there’s no principled reason for barring any other change.

This is nonsense of the first order. What’s worse, it’s old nonsense. The same argument has been trotted out every time the legal parameters of marriage have been changed: for example, when married women were finally allowed to own property, or when the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. Make any change, and soon the sky will fall.

Of course, the fact that the old arguments were needlessly panicky doesn’t entail that the current one is. After all, each change should be evaluated on its own merits.

Precisely. (Now write it down and memorize it, please. It’s going to be on the test.)

The trouble with the slippery-slope argument from gay marriage to polygamy is that it’s a nice sound-bite argument that doesn’t lend itself to a nice sound-bite response. “Show us why polygamy is wrong,” our opponents insist, as if that’s easy to do in 20 words or less. (Try it sometime.)

But here’s a little secret: they can’t do it either, because their favorite arguments against same-sex marriage are useless against polygamy. “It changes the very definition of marriage!” (No: marriage historically has been polygamous more often than monogamous.) “The Bible condemns it!” (Really? Ever heard of King Solomon?) “It’s not open to procreation!” (Watch “Big Love” and get back to me.)

If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like. Such arguments are as available to gay-marriage advocates as to gay-marriage opponents. So when gay-rights opponents ask me to explain why polygamy is wrong, I say to them, “You first.”

Krauthammer seems to assume that those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change. But this requirement is clearly too strong. One might just as well argue that those who advocate allowing men in dining rooms without neckties have a burden to explain why they must nevertheless wear pants, or that those who advocate banning abortion have a burden to explain why we shouldn’t also ban contraception, interracial dating, and dancing (why not?).

While most of us would love to see our opponents spin their wheels on issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such diversionary tactics hardly advance a debate.

But heck: what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Many of our opponents (including Krauthammer) have lamented the high rates of divorce in this country, and some have advocated the tightening of divorce laws and even the elimination of “no fault” divorce. Next time they do this, let’s ask them: why not ban interracial marriage? Why not prohibit married women from owning property? After all, those who advocate any change in the current marriage rules have a burden of proof to explain why we shouldn’t make any other possible change in those rules—don’t they? Don’t they?

Don’t hold your breath for a response.

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First published in Between the Lines, March 9, 2006

Question: What’s worse than a dozen or so states contemplating gay marriage bans during an election year?

Answer: A dozen or so states contemplating gay adoption bans during an election year.

Welcome to 2006. At least sixteen states are considering laws or ballot initiatives restricting the ability of gay individuals or couples to adopt. I’m not sure that this is politically worse than what happened in 2004, when a similar number of states banned same-sex marriage. Adoption bans might help to get out the right-wing vote, but they might also make right-wingers look petty and politically dishonest to moderates. We’ve learned some things since 2004, and the issues are different enough to keep things interesting.

But politics aside, the movement to ban gay adoption strikes me as morally and rhetorically worse than the movement to ban gay marriage. One of the most terrible charges you can levy against someone is the accusation that they pose a threat to children. Indeed, the more extreme opponents of gay adoption have referred to it as a form of child abuse. Those are fighting words.

The central argument against gay adoption is the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

What is not true is the claim that same-sex parenting is suboptimal for children. A growing body of research reports no notable differences in well-being between children reared by homosexual parents and those reared by heterosexual parents. In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.” The AAP “supports legislative and legal efforts to provide the possibility of adoption of the child by the second parent or coparent in these families.”

But let’s suppose the American Academy of Pediatrics is wrong. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that same-sex parenting is indeed suboptimal. Even so, it wouldn’t follow that it should be banned.

It is probably optimal for parents to have a certain level of education, but it doesn’t follow that those with less make bad parents. It is probably optimal for parents to be financially well off, but it doesn’t follow that those who are less so make bad parents. And so on. So even if it were true (which it isn’t) that same-sex parenting is suboptimal, it would not follow that gays and lesbians make bad parents or that they should be forbidden to adopt–especially when the alternative is for children to be raised by the state, which virtually everyone agrees is a poor option.

Opponents of same-sex parenting often describe it as “deliberately depriving children of a mother or a father.” This is another serious charge, and it’s worth careful attention.

If I kill a child’s mother or father, then I thereby deprive him of his mother or father. If I give a child a home, then I don’t thereby “deprive” him of anything–I give him something. By describing same-sex parenting as “depriving” children, opponents are making it sound as if same-sex couples are snatching children’s birthparents away from them. The implication is not merely false; it is morally irresponsible.

Anything can be described in such a way as to make it sound bad. When parents choose to live in the city, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their children of the joys of country life” (or vice-versa). When parents with only female children choose not to have any more children, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their daughters of a brother.” Indeed, we can accuse them of sending a message that “brothers don’t matter,” just as same-sex parenting opponents accuse lesbian parents of sending a message that fathers don’t matter.

Such claims would be laughable if they were not so hurtful. They do not merely badly mis-describe the situation; they falsely accuse good people of doing awful things. And the people hurt by them are not merely gay and lesbian parents: they are, most of all, children–both those in loving same-sex families and those who would be deprived of them by these terrible bans. Here the term “deprive” is apt: when children await adoption, those who stand in their way for spurious reasons do indeed deprive them of something.

Opponents of gay adoption claim that this is a battle for our children’s welfare. They’re right about that.

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