CBC Cross Country Checkup
June 22, 2022
"What is your reaction to Ottawa's decision to recognize same-sex marriage?"







Speaking in Parliament last week against the motion to affirm the present definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, the Hon Svend Robinson asked asked: "How can my marriage to my (gay) partner possibly harm heterosexuals' marriages?" And the implied rhetorical answer, of course, "It can't!" But, like other same-sex marriage advocates, he didn't ask a more important rights question: "How can that marriage affect children?" The answer: "Probably profoundly."

The same-sex marriage debate has focused on the rights of gay adults. But what about the rights of children? Do children have a basic right to know who their biological parents are and to be brought up by them? Does society need an institution that establishes that right as one of its basic principles and norms?

If our answer is "yes" then we must say "no" to changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

Across millennia and societies, marriage has institutionalized and symbolized the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman. It has established the societal norm that in entering marriage a man and a woman take on shared obligations to protect and nurture the children born to them. The corollary of those adult obligations is children's right to know and to be brought up by their biological parents, unless an exception can be justified as in a child's best interests. Same-sex marriage would radically change that norm.

Same-sex marriage presents a difficult choice between conflicting claims, each of which can be characterized as rights. It is true that same-sex marriage would be an important affirmation of respect for homosexuals and the wrong of discriminating against them. But, it would also, unavoidably, be a societal declaration that children don't have any basic right to know who their biological parents are and that they don't need both a mother and a father. Same-sex marriage makes children's rights secondary to adults'. It contravenes the ethical principle that children, as the most vulnerable people, must come first.

It may be politically incorrect, but I believe that a child needs both a mother and a father and, unless there are good reasons to the contrary, to be raised by its own biological mother and father. We can see the deep human need to be connected to our origins through the intense desire of adopted children to find their birth parents and, more recently, those born from donated sperm or ova. Defining the institution of marriage as the union between a man and a woman is our recognition as a society of those needs of children and means of trying to ensure they are fulfilled. And marriage is unique among societal institutions in doing that, there are no alternatives. Same-sex marriage would mean that marriage could no longer perform those tasks.

It makes a major difference with respect to children's rights in general whether non-traditional families are seen as within the norm or an exception to it. Norms, in contrast to exceptions, set basic rules or presumptions. Including same-sex families within the norm means that children do not have a basic right to know and be brought up by their biological parents. That is not true if such families are seen as a justifiable exception to the norm.

And there is also a very important ethical difference between society establishing an institution that of its nature deprives children of their right to a mother and a father, and that situation arising because of the choices of individuals whose choices, for reasons of privacy and respect, should not be interfered with.

Advocates of same-sex marriage respond to these propositions by arguing that with divorce and children being born outside marriage and to single women, marriage doesn't achieve its goal of ensuring that a child knows and is brought up by its biological parents, so why worry about same-sex marriage eliminating the norm that marriage establishes in that regard? Like democracy, the issue is not whether marriage, as it stands, is a perfect institution, but whether society and especially children are better off with that than without it. As well, to buttress their arguments same-sex marriage advocates compare failed examples of traditional marriage in relation to caring for children with the best examples of doing so in non-traditional families. But that is not a fair or accurate assessment.

Same-sex marriage also raises problems regarding reproductive technologies. Society must limit the use of these technologies to protect children. But such limitations could be prohibited if they contravened same-sex couples' rights to found family, rights that come with marriage as a matter of law. I believe a child has a right not to be created from the sperm of two men or the ova of two women, or by cloning. Including same-sex relationships in marriage would support such uses of reproductive technologies.

We must legally protect same-sex couples' relationships and any children involved, and fight discrimination against homosexual people. But we should not try to do that by institutionalizing same-sex couples' relationships as marriage. Their rights can be advanced without deconstructing an institution dedicated to a vital social project - giving children (including children whose sexual orientation later proves to be homosexual) their own mothers and fathers.

[Return to Somerville Article Page]