IT WAS A YEAR AGO LAST MONTH that the Vermont law authorizing same-sex civil unions -- marriage by another name -- took effect, and The New York Times marked the anniversary with a story on July 25. "Quiet Anniversary for Civil Unions," the double headline announced. "Ceremonies for Gay Couples Have Blended Into Vermont Life." It was an upbeat report, and its message was clear: Civil unions are working just fine.
The story noted in passing that most Vermonters oppose the new law, and that many support a constitutional amendment confirming that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Presumably they have reasons for not wanting legal recognition conferred on homosexual couples, but the Times had no room to mention them. It did have room, though, to dismiss those reasons -- whatever they might be -- as meritless:
"The sky has not fallen,' Governor Howard Dean said, 'and the institution of marriage has not collapsed. None of the dire predictions have come true. . . . There was a big rhubarb, a lot of fear-mongering, and now people realize there was nothing to be afraid of.'"
In The Wall Street Journal two days later, much the same point was made by Jonathan Rauch, the esteemed Washington journalist and vice president of the Independent Gay Forum.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, he wrote, worry "that unyoking marriage from its traditional male-female definition will destroy or severely weaken it. But this is an empirical proposition, and there is reason to doubt it. Opponents of same-sex marriage have done a poor job of explaining why the health of heterosexual marriage depends on the exclusion of a small number of homosexuals."
The assertion that same-sex marriage will not damage traditional family life is rarely challenged, a fact seized on by US Representative Barney Frank during the 1996 congressional debate over the Defense of Marriage Act.
"I have asked and I have asked and I have asked and I guess I will die . . . unanswered," Frank taunted. "How does the fact that I love another man and live in a committed relationship with him threaten your marriage? Are your relations with your spouses of such fragility that the fact that I have a committed, loving relationship with another man jeopardizes them? . . . Whose marriage does it threaten?" When another congressman replied that legitimizing gay unions "threatens the institution of marriage," Frank was scornful:
"That argument ought to be made by someone in an institution because it has no logical basis whatsoever."
But Frank's sarcasm, Rauch's doubts, and Dean's reassurances notwithstanding, the threat posed by same-sex unions to traditional marriage and family life is all too real. Marriage is harmed by anything that diminishes its privileged status. It is weakened by anything that erodes the social sanctions that Judeo-Christian culture developed over the centuries for channeling men's naturally unruly sexuality into a monogamous, lasting, and domestic relationship with one woman. For proof, just look around.
Over the last 40 years, marriage has suffered one blow after another. The sexual revolution and the Pill made it much easier for men to enjoy women sexually without having to marry them. The legalization of abortion reduced the pressure on men to marry women they impregnated, and reduced the pressure on women to be sexually responsible, or to wait for lasting love. The widespread acceptance of unmarried cohabitation -- an arrangement that used to be disdained as "shacking up" -- diminished marriage even further. Why get married if intimate companionship can be had without public vows and ceremony?
The rise of the welfare state with its subsidies for single mothers subverted marriage by sending the unmistakable message that husbands were no longer essential for family life. And the rapid spread of no-fault divorce detached marriage from any presumption of permanence. Where couples were once expected to stay married "for as long as you both shall live" -- and therefore to put effort into making their marriage work -- the expectation today is that they will remain together only "for as long as you both shall love."
If we now redefine marriage so it includes the union of two men or two women, we will be taking this bad situation and making it even worse.
No doubt the acceptance of same-sex marriage would remove whatever stigma homosexuality still bears, a goal many people would welcome. But it would do so at a severe cost to the most basic institution of our society. For all the assaults marriage has taken, its fundamental purpose endures: to uphold and encourage the union of a man and a woman, the framework that is the healthiest and safest for the rearing of children. If marriage stops meaning even that, it will stop meaning anything at all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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