The Blog

The Turkish Letter

To get into the European Union, Turkey had to face questions about adultery. Are the Turks right to think it's wrong?

11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2004 • By STEVEN E. RHOADS
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TURKEY is to join the European Union. That is big news. Next to Germany, Turkey will be the largest of the E.U. nations. More significantly, it will be the first Muslim nation to be a part of the European Union. The hope is that Turkey can show the world that Islamic values are not incompatible with liberalism, pluralism, and democracy.

Turkey is well on the way to doing this. Before the formal accession process could be begun, the European Union required that Turkey make its laws congruent with European standards. Turkey passed 218 laws which reformed its penal code. Among them were laws making marital rape a crime and treating honor killings of adulterous wives as seriously as other cases of intentional murder.

But as we celebrate, it is worth remembering that Turkey almost didn't make it. Through much of the summer and fall there was one big sticking point. Turkey's government wanted to pass a law that would make adultery by either spouse a crime.

Europe was outraged. The E.U. Commissioner for Enlargement, the German Guenter Verheugen, said the proposed law "can only be a joke." He proclaimed that a law banning adultery would suggest that Islamic law was entering Turkish law, and his spokesman said such a proposal was "alien" to the European way and would indicate "a fundamentalist mentality that the state runs your bedroom."

Other E.U. officials warned darkly of violations of Article Eight of the European Convention of Human Rights. The article guarantees every European a right to "respect for his private and family life," but it explicitly allows governments to intervene in private matters to protect "morals" and the "rights of others."

Throughout Turkey, and Europe more generally, feminists led the charge against the law. But women commit less adultery than men and are generally more supportive of laws condemning it. A recent South Korean poll, for example, showed that their law against adultery was supported by 55 percent of men and 84 percent of women. Support for the law among Turkish women was also widespread.

FOR SOME REASON the Turks find the West licentious and have no desire to imitate our culture. Moreover, as it happens, the Turkish countryside has been invaded by leggy, blond prostitutes from the former Soviet Union. A Scottish history professor, now living in Turkey, reports in the Wall Street Journal that small Cappadocian towns can have as many as 50 of them, and they have led to the dumping of wives and to hollowed out marriages.

Turkey may have had reasons to make adultery unlawful. What are the costs and benefits of adultery? Might a civilized society choose to use the law to help enforce marital vows?

Adultery always brings deception, frequently brings guilt, and sometimes brings venereal disease. With its discovery comes shame, sadness, distress, and anger spurred on by a sense of betrayal and injustice. In its aftermath comes divorce (and sometimes violence). In cross-cultural surveys, adultery is a leading, often the leading, cause of divorce. Shirley Glass, a researcher and family counselor, finds that only 10 percent of her clients separate when neither has been unfaithful, but 35 percent do when adultery is involved.

Sixty percent of divorces leave minor children without a biological father in the home. The added risks to children in homes without biological fathers are multiple and alarming. Family income goes down. Education and health outcomes sink. Teenage male crime rates double in single parent homes and triple if moms marry their lovers. Correspondingly, teenage female pregnancy rates double.

Clearly, many of these results affect all of us, not just those families with the problem children. As one review notes, "time and again in the literature family structure explains more about crime than does race or low income." The effects start early--with 2-year-olds showing more emotional and behavioral problems than children in married families, and with pre-adolescents lying and destroying property more frequently. And the effects last. A study following a sample of academically gifted children for 70 years finds that parental divorce reduces a child's life expectancy by four years even after controlling for childhood health status, family background, and personality characteristics such as impulsivity and emotional instability. Forty-year-olds who grew up in divorced but otherwise advantaged homes are three times more likely than their peers to die prematurely.