The victims of marriage reforms
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 30, 2005

Apart from sporadic references to polygamy, debate about the potential social effects of same-sex marriage has been ignored. But according to Douglas Allen, a family economist at Simon Fraser University, the law of unintended consequences must inevitably apply.

In a submission to the suspended Justice Committee on Same Sex Marriage, Allen argues the outcomes of past family reforms, such as no-fault divorce, were completely unanticipated by those who advocated change. Moreover, those outcomes were largely negative: divorce rates increased to today's high of almost 40 per cent, as did the rate at which women entered the workforce and the incidence of spousal abuse. Poverty was feminized and the age at which people marry rose while the value of marriage in the popular culture fell.

Judith S. Wallerstein, social scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, also studied divorce outcomes. Following a control group of middle-class children of divorced parents over a period of 25 years, her 2001 book The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, with co-authors Julia Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, concluded that:

... it's in adulthood that children of divorce suffer the most. The impact of divorce hits them most cruelly as they go in search of love, sexual intimacy, and commitment. Their lack of inner images of a man and a woman in a stable relationship and their memories of their parents' failure to sustain the marriage badly hobbles their search, leading them to heartbreak and even despair. They cried, "No one taught me." They complain bitterly that they feel unprepared for adult relationships and that they have never seen a "man and a woman on the same beam," that they have no good models on which to build their hopes.

And indeed they have a very hard time formulating even simple ideas about the kind of person they're looking for. Many end up with unsuitable or very troubled partners in relationships that were doomed from the start.

Why did no one foresee these problems? Allen says the failure then is the same one appearing now in same-sex marriage. "Individuals change their behaviour when they face different sets of incentives."

Marriage is an institution society uses to regulate a specific type of union, he says, and extending the definition of marriage cannot be done without incurring social costs, including different forms of marital regulation, easier, more-frequent divorce and constant pressure to allow other types of marriage.

If the liberalization of divorce laws produced so negative an impact on children, how will the liberalization of marriage laws affect them?

No one knows. And, as the Wallerstein research demonstrates, definitive analysis will not be available for at least 25 years. Some clues, though, are already apparent.

Writing in the National Post on July 14, McGill University ethicist Margaret Somerville elaborates her concerns about a technological future that includes construction of an embryo from two ova or two sperm. Like Wallerstein's children of divorce, the first cohort of people born through the use of new reproductive technologies are now in adulthood.

These "donor conceived adults," says Somerville, feel a complete loss of identity and describe themselves as "genetic orphans." Under international law, the right to marry includes the right to found a family, she reminds us, and Canadian courts have expressly referred to same-sex couples using new reproductive technologies.

And what of children in a more general sense? In an already-permissive society in which serial divorce translates into serial sexual experimentation among the young, the elimination of the last public distinction between procreative and non-procreative sex can only make a bad situation worse.

British in vitro fertilization specialist Bill Ledger estimates one in three western couples will be infertile within 10 years, partly because of sexually transmitted diseases. This means yet more use of reproductive technologies.

As for polygamy, the first homosexual couple desiring a marital union with the opposite-sex biological parent of "their" child will likely be allowed this "right" too.

"What good my mother's eyes if my father doesn't love them?" American essayist Tom Lynch hauntingly described his child's pain when he and his wife divorced.

In the tide of history, the marriage question was largely settled. Today, social wrongs, such as discrimination against gays and lesbians, demand correction, but by creating new rights, Canada is, however unintentionally, also creating new victims.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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