The marriage equality debate is no longer about children

In the debate about marriage equality, one argument put forward by proponents of traditional marriage is pushing its way to the fore: that marriage equality is undesirable because it denies a child knowledge of and access to both his/her mother and father. This is an argument that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

It is not just that the parenting issue for same sex couples has (for the most part) already been resolved, with adoption, sperm donation, co-parenting amongst male and female same sex couples, and recognition of two same sex parents on a birth certificate already accepted, and that this means the marriage equality debate is quite literally one about whether we as a society believe in equal recognition of same sex relationships. It is also that society, as a whole, has long since moved on from the concept of a traditional nuclear family unit (biological mother, father, kids).

One night stands between relative strangers and casual sexual relationships lead to children, of which the father may or may not be aware. Separation and divorce splits the family unit, and children may or may not have a relationship with both parents. There is statistical evidence to indicate that up to one in five children have the incorrect biological father listed on their birth certificate. Many adopted children of heterosexual couples have no idea of their biological parents. There is absolutely no guarantee that a child is more likely to know their biological parents if raised in a heterosexual environment than a same sex one.

Proponents will argue that their issue is with this being allowed by design – that it’s one thing for it to be the reality but another if society actually engineers and symbolically endorses it. However, once again, society has moved on from this point of view. By design, a single woman can access a sperm donor without first trying to establish a traditional relationship. By design, egg donation can be used in surrogacy without first attempting to use a woman’s own eggs. By design, a heterosexual couple can adopt without first trying to have their own children.

There is no evidence to suggest that children of same sex couples suffer more or grow up to be less well-adjusted than those of heterosexual couples, separated parents or single parents. Unquestionably there are children of same sex couples who have had bad experiences, and in some instances those bad experiences will have been precisely because they are being raised by two same sex individuals. However, that is no different for children of any other family structure. There are those in that environment who have had bad childhoods too, and a LGBTQIA child growing up in an intolerant homopobic heterosexual household will suffer precisely because of the heterosexual household.

Traditional marriage proponents have put forward the argument about children and biological parenting every time the family unit has changed: when divorce first came about, with single parenting, with surrogacy. Some of this was direct – the Catholic Church refused to recognise divorce for a long time – and some of it was insidious, such as the discrimination against single parents. On each and every occasion society as a whole over-rode this point of view in its organic evolution. We either fundamentally recognised that happy people in no or positive relationships are better for children than miserable people in unhappy or even dangerous relationships forcibly held together or we accepted that we couldn’t control things to that degree. The current application of the argument by traditional marriage proponents against same sex marriage is simply the latest in a long line of attempts to retain control.

It is therefore in its very nature discriminatory because it is singling out one particular group of society. True proponents of traditional marriage would argue that they have equal problems with divorce, de facto relationships, single parenting, casual relationships, surrogacy and adoption. But they don’t say that precisely because they know that they would marginalise their views and lose any appeal to the overwhelming majority of the population. Instead, they try to isolate it to a heterosexual vs homosexual debate, picking and choosing particular examples that support their argument. It’s not about protecting children, either, even though many who endorse it no doubt believe it is. Rather it is about using the most vulnerable of all society’s members to pull people’s heart strings and make it difficult for them to counter – the obvious rebuttal being that those who fail to take this into account clearly do not care about children.

This argument has risen to prominence because the philosophical debate about whether marriage should be between a man and a woman only has been resolved, in favour of the view that marriage should be available to heterosexual and homosexual couples equally. Traditional marriage proponents lost that argument, so they have moved on to something else.

The line of reasoning that marriage equality is wrong for children is a strawman argument. The problem with it becoming part of the debate is that it has the potential to shift the marriage equality debate away from what it is truly about. And whether one believes in a parliamentary vote, a referendum or a plebiscite, the issues that are considered should relate directly, and only, to the matter in question. That is, whether we agree that people in same sex relationships should be formally recognised as equal by incorporation into the institution of marriage.

The marriage equality debate is no longer about children

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