In a lengthy and some respects informative piece in the National Review, Heather MacDonald expresses concern that allowing same-sex marriages will further the erosion of the link between biology and parenting. Notwithstanding its merits as a review of the transformations wrought by the recent availability of assisted reproduction, though, the article reduces to a familiar trope: While the gays haven’t caused the mess we’re in, preventing them from marrying will at least slow the rot.
MacDonald acknowledges that the long-held connection between parenting and biology has been under assault of late, because of assisted reproduction, yes, but also as a result of the liberalization of divorce law and the higher incidence of cohabitation; now we have many kids living with people who didn’t supply the gametes. In the good old days, she pines, such disconnections were mostly limited to the relatively rare cases of adoption and the death of the biological parents. Now all hell has broken lose, and parenting is increasingly seen as a matter of intent rather than of biology.
Little of this has to do with gay parents and their children; we are late-comers to adoption and assisted reproduction. So what could possibly justify targeting gay parents and their children for discriminatory treatment? The argument reduces to a few points.
First, the visuals are bad: MacDonald opens her article with a photo of two gay men holding their soon-to-be-baptized child, and wonders “Where’s the mother?” Later, she says that gay parenting is a “visible affirmation of the social acceptability of severing genetic contribution from parenting.” MacDonald makes clear enough that she doesn’t like any kind of assisted reproduction, but nowhere suggests that we ought to revisit the legality of such arrangements. No, let’s just exclude gays and lesbians because they can’t even in principle procreate without outside assistance. At least we don’t have to see what’s going on with opposite-sex couples.
Second, men and women are complementary and bring this difference to their children. She’s smart enough to acknowledge, in passing, that she’s speaking only of “averages,” but seems committed to this sociological variant of natural law theory. The problem here, besides the essentialist impulse, is that gays and lesbians are already raising kids, and will continue to do so. MacDonald doesn’t even suggest that this should stop. As Andrew Sullivan points out, she contradicts her principal objection by stating that
The primary challenge to traditional notions of parenthood comes from gay conception, not gay marriage. Even if gays never gain the right to marry, the practice of gay conception will presumably continue apace. Given that continuation, gay marriage at least preserves one strand of traditional child-bearing arrangements: raising children within the context of marriage.
What, then, is the objection (aside from the uncomfortable visuals)? Gay marriage might be the “last straw” that we should be reluctant to add to the overburdened camel (marriage). This is her third and final point, but she can only make it by setting up a false opposition between the two people in a gay relationship and the overall society: Oh, if only we could be confident that same-sex marriages wouldn’t further erode this troubled institution, who wouldn’t be in favor of affirming the right of gay couples to put the “official, public stamp of legitimacy on their love.” (To her credit, MacDonald does acknowledge that the cost to gays of this denial of equality is “large.”) In a similar vein, she slams as “astoundingly blind” the libertarian view that “gay marriage is a trivial matter that affects only the parties involved.”
The only “straw” properly in this narrative is the straw man argument MacDonald has set up. No one who has seriously thought about marriage equality believes the matter is “trivial” or that it affects only the immediate parties. It’s not a question of “the gays” against everyone else. Many people at every point along the liberal-to-conservative spectrum believe that allowing gay couples to marry will strengthen the institution of marriage, by signaling and reaffirming the value of bilateral commitment. And what about the cost to marriage of defining it as a discriminatory, repressive institution? For some heterosexual couples, at least, the state’s continuing refusal to permit same-sex couples to wed is a black mark against marriage itself; this perception might itself reduce marriage rates.
Worse, MacDonald nowhere mentions the cost to the children of gay couples of denying their parents the right to marry. This omission is especially glaring in light of her statement that it might turn out that (as she clearly believes) children do best with “stability in their lives.” Against some theorized harm to the children of heterosexual parents by allowing gays to marry, she counts the welfare of the kids of gay unions — not at all.
This piece is much more thought-provoking than her earlier, risible attempt to cast doubt on marriage equality by suggesting that it might make African-American men reluctant to marry (really!), but it ultimately makes the same error as that article: Blaming the gays for any imaginable harm, whether we’ve caused it, or not.