The Magazine

The End of Marriage?

Jan 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 17 • By DAVID FRUM
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This won't do. Merely stating your support for the law as it existed yesterday does nothing to protect the country from the legal threat it faces today. When the Supreme Court of one of the sovereign states ruled that it could find no "reasonable and just basis" for upholding the constitutionality of the institution of marriage, it posed a legal challenge -- and a moral challenge -- to the whole nation. This is not the first time that the challenge has been posed: In the series of court cases that challenged Congress's authority to suppress polygamy in the Utah Territory, the federal courts recognized, as Justice Mathews ruled in the 1885 case of Murphy v. Ramsey, that "no legislation can be supposed more wholesome and necessary in the founding of a free, self-governing commonwealth, fit to take rank as one of the co-ordinate states of the Union, than that which seeks to establish it on the basis of the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from the union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony; the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization; the best guaranty of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement." The federal government cannot and should not exert the same authority over Vermont, a state, as it did over Utah, then still a territory. But if Vermont's revolution is to be contained and corrected, national lawmakers and leaders must articulate their reasons for rejecting it and their plans for mitigating the damage it will do.

Advocates of same-sex partnership like to point out that civilizations have experimented with many forms of sexual and family organization. That's true of course -- just as it's true that civilizations have experimented with many forms of political and economic organization. What Americans have understood until now, however, is that heterosexual monogamy is the only form of sexual organization consistent with republican self-government. Anything else, as the Supreme Court observed in 1890, tends to "destroy the purity of the marriage relation, to disturb the peace of families, to degrade woman, and to debase man."

The first effects of that debasement are already becoming visible. How often have we heard in the past two weeks that the defense of marriage is the moral equivalent of the defense of segregation? Doesn't anybody stop to ponder the horrific trivialization of the evil of segregation implied by this analogy?

But there is plenty more debasement still to come. Same-sex partnerships are a large and decisive step toward the replacement of marriage with a new system of temporary, fluctuating unions that elevate the wishes of adults over the welfare of children. In order to treat same-sex and opposite-sex relationships equally, the new unions will have to be sex-blind: The law will no longer be permitted to take into account the distinctive connections between mothers and children and the special vulnerabilities of women in marriage. Again in order to treat same-sex and opposite-sex unions equally, the new partnerships will have to accept children as a marketable commodity, and to accommodate the alarming new trend toward the purchase and sale of sperm, eggs, and wombs. One of the very first arguments put forward against a federal ban on human cloning was that the ban would threaten the reproductive freedom of homosexuals.

The family is where we learn to be human and to be citizens. Discarding the family in favor of something new will change the meaning of both humanity and citizenship. This is about as large a political issue as there could be. Is it really possible that none of the leading contenders for the presidency is large enough to address it?

David Frum, for the Editors