Knowledge is power — the shift from yes to no occurs when people consider carefully how they want marriage to be construed in our society, says Dr Samuel Shephard
On May 22, the Government will hold a referendum on same-sex marriage. They propose to amend Article 41 of the Constitution, such that: ‘Marriage may be contracted… by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has suggested this amendment is only a legal tweak to allow same-sex couples to say ‘I do’.
Despite this blithe reassurance, the latest Sunday Business Post opinion polls indicates 22% of people intend to vote no. However, of the 78% who intend to vote yes, one in three still have doubts about same-sex marriage.
As the debate proceeds, this doubt is coalescing into declining support for the Government’s amendment. Why is it that increased understanding of marriage redefinition frequently changes an intuitive yes vote into a firm no? Knowledge is power; the shift from yes to no occurs when people consider carefully how they want marriage to be construed in our society.
There are currently two distinct and incompatible visions of marriage in play. The Government’s ‘revisionist’ view defines marriage as “the ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people”. There is no mention of gender (or sex), which makes this relationship amenable to loves of every rainbow colour.
Being a very soft and flexible definition, it fosters an intuitive sympathy with same-sex partnerships: If a gay couple wants to marry, who am I to interfere? The focus is primarily on societal recognition and celebration of adult love, and it is indeed difficult to see why any consenting couple should be excluded. The revisionist view is the marriage meme of western pop culture.
The alternative is an ‘ecological’ vision of marriage. This view holds marriage has a strong objective basis in human nature — the sexual pair bond of man and woman, and points inherently towards children (even when a specific couple is childless).
Most anthropologists consider marriage in this way; they say marriage, as a cultural means of constraining our evolved mating strategies to best serve society, has a deep evolutionary history that probably goes back to the first migration of modern humans from Africa.
Ecological marriage is not open to government redefinition because it is not a policy construct, but an emergent ‘free-range’ aspect of human nature.
It is sometimes said that marriage is constantly evolving, and that ecological and revisionist marriage are just steps in a process. This is inaccurate.
It is only the cultural practices around marriage that vary — whether the bride wears a white dress or coloured sari, whether a man can marry one wife or three. Under these transient social norms, ecological marriage remains stubbornly evident in the sexual relationship of male and female, and the blood-tie to their children.
The Constitution describes ecological marriage: Article 41 says the “institution of narriage is the foundation of the family”. This is a common-sense observation: marriage is a cultural formulation of the mating pair bond, which is where babies come from.
Marriage thus vindicates what the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child identifies as the right of children “to know and be cared for, if at all possible, by their own mother and father”.
Unfortunately, this natural logic is completely lost in revisionist marriage: A same-sex couple can never make a baby, or provide a child with both mother and father. The adult love and commitment may be equal but the underlying ecological reality is stubbornly different.
The principle of equality states that similar things should be treated in a similar way, but different things can be treated differently. This principle provides a metric for the electorate as we decide which vision of marriage we want to endorse.
If the Government is correct that same-sex and heterosexual relationships are identical and interchangeable, then equality demands that we revise marriage.
What necessarily follows is a constitutional obligation to legally enforce the idea that there is nothing unique and baby-making about the sexual intercourse of man and woman, and that it makes no difference at all to a child if they are reared by their mother and father or by a same-sex couple.
Ecological marriage, free-range and natural, must be airbrushed out. Alternatively, if there are any relevant differences between gay and straight relationships, then we can legitimately treat them differently.
We answer the equality question when we decide whether marriage is simply the ‘ultimate loving commitment between two people’ (why two?), or whether this romantic and wonderful (pair) bond has anything fundamental to do sex and babies. If it is true that ‘first comes love and then comes marriage, then comes baby in a golden carriage’, then the differences are obvious.
The European Court of Human Rights has consistently ruled that same-sex marriage is not a human right. Equal but different is thus a legitimate and just option.
Maybe the Taoiseach didn’t know, but the existing civil partnership ceremony in Ireland already allows a same-sex couple to stand before family, society, and law, and say ‘I do’.
The welfare of children being raised by ‘non-traditional’ families is addressed in guardianship law that has just been substantially strengthened in (good bits of) the Child and Family Relationships Act.
We have a system that recognises and works with diversity of relationships. Our Government wants to pretend that this diversity (man/woman, gay/straight) is irrelevant to marriage.
For anyone who still suspects that men and women might be different — beware. Passing the marriage referendum will create law and culture that explicitly contradicts the idea that feminine or masculine have any practical meaning for marriage and family.
Men: The law will hold that your fatherhood is literally irrelevant; it will say that there is nothing that your fatherly relationship brings to the children who share half your identity, which cannot be 100% replaced by a biologically unrelated woman. Women: The law and the Government will insist that your motherhood can be fulfilled exactly equal by two men, a donated egg, and a rented surrogate.
This revision would be a triumph of political correctness over Mother Nature. The more the people of Ireland understand this, the more they disagree.
Dr Samuel Shephard is a population ecologist at Queen’s University Belfast. He lives in Cork with his wife and children.
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