Marriage Equality and Contraception

Damon Linker has an interesting analysis of a brief (PDF) filed by Robert George, a Catholic law professor at Princeton, in the Prop 8 case. He notes that all this focus on having children makes contraception the real target of the arguments being used by the anti-gay side.

George and his co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan T. Anderson make the following argument: “Our civilization” has univocally defined marriage as a “conjugal union” between one man and one woman — that is, a union between two people that is oriented to the goal of producing children. Whether or not a particular male-female couple can produce a child is irrelevant. In cases of infertility due to medical defect or advanced age on the part of one or both members of the marriage, the union falls short of reaching its goal but remains oriented to that goal nonetheless. (The union would produce a child if the bodies of both members were functioning as they should.)

Unless, of course, contraception is used to prevent that from happening, as most couples do at least some of the time.

Any number of objections could be raised against this line of argument. (Is it really true, for example, that “our civilization” has affirmed a single definition of marriage?) But I’m primarily interested in focusing on its most decisive weakness — which is that it gets a crucial chain of causality exactly backwards. Permitting gay marriage will not lead Americans to stop thinking of marriage as a conjugal union. Quite the reverse: Gay marriage has come to be widely accepted because our society stopped thinking of marriage as a conjugal union decades ago.

Between five and six decades ago, to be precise. That’s when the birth control pill — first made available to consumers for the treatment of menstrual disorders in 1957 and approved by the FDA for contraceptive use three years later — began to transform sexual relationships, and hence marriage, in the United States. Once pregnancy was decoupled from intercourse, pre-marital sex became far more common, which removed one powerful incentive to marry young (or marry at all). It likewise became far more common for newlyweds to give themselves an extended childless honeymoon (with some couples choosing never to have kids).

In all of these ways, and many more, the widespread availability of contraception transformed marriage from a conjugal union into a relationship based to a considerable degree on the emotional and sexual fulfillment of its members — with childrearing often, though not always, a part of the equation. And it is because same-sex couples are obviously just as capable as heterosexual couples of forming relationships based on emotional and sexual fulfillment that gay marriage has come to be accepted so widely and so quickly in our culture.

Which is why so many of the people who oppose same-sex marriage also oppose contraception, which is the real target of the anti-choice movement — if they cared primarily about preventing abortions, they would be advocating for the widest possible distribution and availability of birth control. Because they think God is in control of everything, especially when you have children, so any steps taken to prevent that are by definition immoral (never mind that if God were actually in control and deciding who gets pregnant, our puny human condoms and pills would be of no use).

24 comments on this post.
  1. Sastra:

    I’ve also read an argument which blamed the end of traditional marriage and the high divorce rate on a much earlier shift, one which began to take place during the Renaissance and reached a tipping point in the 19th century: the ideal of romantic love and its connection to marriage. It used to be that you got married and stayed married for practical reasons having to do with roles. You were a team which worked together — and this work could be childrearing or a farm or a family business of some kind, whatever. You hoped for a spouse who was ‘suited’ to you. A partner.

    The idea that you were supposed to meet and marry your “soul-mate” because you fell in love with them and no other — and that you and your spouse should be best friends — was the real end of “traditional marriage” and the beginning of marriages which were probably better, but more fragile. Contraception simply drove the wedge in deeper: this is about love.

    The anti-gay marriage crowd are not just attacking freedom, they’re going after love. Of course they’re going to lose.

  2. Reginald Selkirk:

    univocally

    I can’t hear those other people because I have my fingers in my ears.”

  3. picklefactory:

    The Reasonable Doubts folks took this guy apart 3 years ago in The Curious Case of Robert P. George. Absolutely worth a listen.

  4. Jacob Schmidt:

    In cases of infertility due to medical defect or advanced age on the part of one or both members of the marriage, the union falls short of reaching its goal but remains oriented to that goal nonetheless.

    What is this I don’t even?

    Even assuming his premise is true, this is still a stupid argument. Gay people could attempt to have children all they want; they’d just be really ineffective at it. The union would produce a child if the bodies of members were opposite sex after all. The union simply falls short of it’s goal.

    (The union would produce a child if the bodies of both members were functioning as they should.)

    I really dislike the term “should”. There’s no way a body “should” operate. There are ways a body usually operates. There are generally consistent things a body can and cannot do. But there is no universal imperative on what a body is supposed to do.

    It’s like they draw the lines to suit their political convenience.

  5. hunter:

    Sastra @1: That’s an interesting take, but I wonder about the timeline — romantic love had become a staple of courtly ballads by the middle of the twelfth century (thanks in large part to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, Marie de Champagne) but remained decoupled from marriage for quite some time — I’d guess into the mid-nineteenth century, at least. In fact, if you look at the romances of the Arthur cycle and its contemporaries, romantic love and marriage were two separate things — otherwise, no romance and no story. Falling in love with your spouse was almost unheard of. Even as late as the early nineteenth-century, if we’re to believe the novels of Jane Austen at all, the major requirement for a desirable spouse was a good income. It was nice if he or she were personable, but not absolutely required. (And yes, fiction can deliver some good insights into prevailing attitudes of the time.)

    The bottom line on this is that until quite recently, marriage was about property and inheritance. (Not that operating as a team was not a consideration, but the core was material well being.) And in its legal aspects, it still is about property and inheritance — just think about what’s at issue in divorce proceedings.

    All of which is to say that Robert George and company are doing nothing so much as trying to declare the Catholic doctrine of “natural law” a universal truth, when it is anything but.

  6. marcus:

    Sastra @1 “The idea that you were supposed to meet and marry your “soul-mate” because you fell in love with them…”
    ….was at that time was known as ‘adultery’.

  7. Modusoperandi:

    “Which is why so many of the people who oppose same-sex marriage also oppose contraception, which is the real target of the anti-choice movement…”

    No it’s not. They oppose contraception for other people (specifically, sluts and whores). Good People® won’t get caught in that net, for some reason. Much as the only moral abortion is my abortion the only moral contraception is my contraception. I, for imaginary example, already have 3 kids, and my new husband and I can’t afford another right now and we’re spacing them out and it’s none of your business why are you so nosy and did you hear about Mabel and her new beau and rumor has it she’s pregnant with another one, on top of the triplets, and their marriage (her second, y’know) will never last and his hours have been cut back at the mill and Social Services really should step in and…

  8. marcus:

    Stupid interweb!
    ….was at that time known as ‘adultery’.

  9. richardelguru:

    “(The union would produce a child if the bodies of both members were functioning as they should.)”
     
    So it’s all the fault of that stinking bastard god!

  10. Gregory in Seattle:

    The obvious answer, therefore, is to change the law and make procreation a mandatory requirement of marriage. A group of people tried this in Washington State a few years back, protesting the state supreme court’s upholding of Washington’s Denial of Marriage Act using the procreation argument. The international reaction was… interesting.

  11. Sastra:

    hunter #5 wrote:

    That’s an interesting take, but I wonder about the timeline …

    My timeline is slightly off but I think we’re still mostly in agreement because the shift which “began to take place during the Renaissance and reached a tipping point in the 19th century” was supposed to trace the ideal of romantic love itself from its origins to where it stands today, where the popular sentiment is that you have to marry for love or it won’t work. The “tipping point” for believing love belonged in marriage was, as you point out, about mid-nineteenth century. The writings of Jane Austen are good examples from the transition stage, when it started becoming socially acceptable for young women to reject the good catches their parents chose for them simply because they didn’t like them.

    Marriage has always been about property and inheritance, but the proper attitude of the individuals involved gradually changed from pragmatic to romantic … and then marriage suddenly wasn’t supposed to be about property and inheritance. You’re supposed to be in love, and living with your best friend. Plus property and inheritance and maybe kids or no kids … but love. That’s first.

    The Natural Law advocates are fighting a losing battle on so many fronts. It can be hard to keep track.

  12. ArtK:

    I think that his statement that pre-marital intercourse became more prevalent after the introduction of the pill is suspect. People have been boffing each other outside of marriage for a very, very long time. There’s tons of literature and song about the topic, going back centuries. The shift that happened in the 60s was that the social stigma was lifted somewhat and people were more open about it. You could easily make the opposite causal inference in that it was the lifting of the stigma that made the pill popular. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    Other than that, I’m in general agreement with his analysis of the paper.

  13. whheydt:

    What I’ve always wanted to do, should I find myself face to face with one of these idiot godbotherers who goes on about marriage and children, particularly “unintended” children is to make the following argument:

    1. God is all powerful. With God “all things are possible”.

    2. If God wants one (or both!) members of a same sex couple to bear a child, why can’t God just make that happen? What has the gender of the two have to do with it? Can’t God just make one (or both) of them pregnant?

  14. d.c.wilson:

    “pre-marital sex became far more common”

    People had lots of premarital sex before the pill. They also had shotgun weddings or failing that, or, failing that, teen girls would suddenly develop a mysterious illness that required her to leave school and go live with her “aunt” for several months.

    And there were also coat hangers.

  15. thumper1990:

    In cases of infertility due to medical defect or advanced age on the part of one or both members of the marriage, the union falls short of reaching its goal but remains oriented to that goal nonetheless. (The union would produce a child if the bodies of both members were functioning as they should.)

    How horribly patronising. What a dick.

  16. raven:

    In cases of infertility due to medical defect or advanced age on the part of one or both members of the marriage, the union falls short of reaching its goal but remains oriented to that goal nonetheless.

    What is this I don’t even?

    It’s nonsense. Gibberish. It can be amusing trying to translate it from fundie to English though.

    Blaming modern medicine i.e birth control for modern family life is also way too simplistic.

    There have always been methods for limiting family size, even down to the hunter gather level. Since this is a family blog, I won’t bother to list “alternative” nonprocreative sexual activities. Chances are though, your teenage and older kids know them all.

    One common one was (and is) to just leave surplus babies out on a cold hillside. Infanticide.

    This was common even in Europe up until a century or two ago. Common enough that we have a word in English for it. Foundling.

    It still happens today in various parts of the world. In the USA it is rare but happens. We read occasionally of an infant found in a dumpster or dropped off at a hospital.

    Robert George, “a Catholic law professor at Princeton”, babbles on about the good old days that never were. My ex-Catholic friend’s father was dropped off at a Catholic orphanage. His poor Irish-American family had too many kids and simply couldn’t support them all. They were desperate and trying to do the right thing. He grew up a bit stunted from malnutrition and managed to catch TB.

  17. bmiller:

    The argument doesn’t even have any meaning.

    What does “oriented to that goal” even mean in the case of an elderly couple or a relationship with an infertile partner? It is babble-speak, nonsense.

    Unless, I guess GOD reaches down and “blesses” the 85 year old couple with twins? Other than that…you can have all the “orientation: you want, but….

  18. raven:

    A lot of Catholic theology is just stuff they made up over the millennia, not found in the bible.

    Including the ban on contraception which is something a Pope made up some time in the 20th century.

    They call it natural law.

    It’s really is just idiotic babbling that a third grader can do.

    “If god wanted us to fly, we would be born with wings.”

    “If god wanted us to wear clothes, we would have been born with fur coats”.

    “Birth control is unnatural”. As is cheap abundant food, indoor plumbing, modern medicine, cars, long average lifespans, and computers.

  19. tbp1:

    @15: There were also lots of premature babies who were, miraculously, healthy and not at all underweight at birth.

  20. tbp1:

    Oops, shoulda directed my comment at #14. Sorry…

  21. Gregory in Seattle:

    @raven #18 – The ban on contraception actually dates back to 4th and 5th centuries, as part of the response to Christianity’s main rival, Manichaeism. The Manicheans were Gnostics who believed that the material world was a trap that imprisoned the divine light of the soul. Laypeople could enjoy the pleasures of the world, but were strongly discouraged from bringing new life into it; that would require enslaving another soul. So, they practiced numerous forms of non-reproductive sex. The Church responded by declaring that anyone engaging in such activities was damned for all eternity.

  22. Stacy:

    @hunter and @Sastra

    That’s an interesting take, but I wonder about the timeline …

    My timeline is slightly off but I think we’re still mostly in agreement because the shift which “began to take place during the Renaissance and reached a tipping point in the 19th century” was supposed to trace the ideal of romantic love itself from its origins to where it stands today, where the popular sentiment is that you have to marry for love or it won’t work. The “tipping point” for believing love belonged in marriage was, as you point out, about mid-nineteenth century. The writings of Jane Austen are good examples from the transition stage, when it started becoming socially acceptable for young women to reject the good catches their parents chose for them simply because they didn’t like them.

    I think Sastra’s right. The transition surely began well before the nineteenth century. Shakespeare was big on marrying for love. Remember Juliet refusing to marry Count Paris, because she loved Romeo, and her parents’ reaction.

    The anti-gay marriage crowd are not just attacking freedom, they’re going after love. Of course they’re going to lose

    I want this on a sampler!

  23. vmanis1:

    I believe it was Arthur C Clarke who once wrote of a woman who refused to fly because if God meant us to fly, he would have given us wings. She took the train instead.

  24. acroyear:

    Or that if God were in charge of who gets pregnant, the millions of women who have lost unborn children to miscarriages (including my wife who had *more than one*) would just have plenty of excuses to condemn this uncaring, unloving God for putting them through the hell of losing a child they actually really want.

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