The marriage debate takes an interesting turn

by Ryan Streeter on June 12, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Mark Regnerus’s new study on the effects of same-sex parenting on children will factor heavily into the ongoing debate about gay marriage in coming months. It’s already provoking responses and starting debates about what the data mean, which will continue, especially given that his study is more empirically significant than any on the topic to date. Much of the debate will center on his conclusions – namely that children growing up with gay parents fare worse on multiple measures than those who come from homes with married heterosexual parents. His findings hold even when you control for things such as whether children were bullied when they were younger or how gay-friendly their state was. His non-academic, layman-friendly version is at Slate here.

But the study also has the potential to re-introduce the fundamental issue of procreation back into the marriage debate. The biggest fissure in the debate is between those who believe that marriage by definition involves a procreative element to it, and those who do not. Culturally, the mainstream view has been drifting from the former to the latter view for awhile now. Marriage is now commonly viewed only in terms of the emotional bond it represents between two adults. Until now, advocates of gay marriage have largely held this view and argued that, as far as children go, we only have evidence that they do well when they have two loving parents, regardless of orientation.

Regnerus’s study shines a light back on the fundamental question of whether there’s just simply something unique about children born to married heterosexual couples. Critics of the study are already saying it proves that we need gay marriage, as most of the people in the study with gay parents didn’t grow up with married gay parents. New cohorts of such children will need to be a part of future studies. But for now, his study reaffirms the age-old idea that children are the reason marriage makes sense in the first place, which is in turn why children of married couples do better than other children. Regnerus’s study doesn’t prove that thesis. It merely provides empirical evidence in support of it – but it does so forcefully that anyone arguing “there’s no difference” between gay and straight married homes when it comes to children will have to contend with the findings.

In terms of the argument about marriage’s procreative essence, it’s worth rereading the NRO editors’ case for marriage from September 2010:

It is true that marriage is, in part, an emotional union, and it is also true that spouses often take care of each other and thereby reduce the caregiving burden on other people. But neither of these truths is the fundamental reason for marriage. The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people’s emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) …

It has always been the union of a man and a woman (even in polygamous marriages in which a spouse has a marriage with each of two or more persons of the opposite sex) for the same reason that there are two sexes: It takes one of each type in our species to perform the act that produces children. That does not mean that marriage is worthwhile only insofar as it yields children. (The law has never taken that view.) But the institution is oriented toward child-rearing. (The law has taken exactly that view.) What a healthy marriage culture does is encourage adults to arrange their lives so that as many children as possible are raised and nurtured by their biological parents in a common household.