Last night, I sent in my submission the Government Administration Committee on the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. Submissions close today – you can make an online submission via the government’s website. (Online submission button is at the bottom of the page.)
Here’s what I had to say (you’ll recognise some of it if you’ve been reading my posts for a while):
I oppose the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill.
Marriage between a man and a woman is a natural social institution
Cultures throughout history have had formal ways of creating families as places in which to raise children. Marriage, as a social institution, is found in one form or another in all cultures throughout the world
The majority tradition in New Zealand recognises four features of marriage: complementarity, openness to children, exclusiveness, and duration. Indeed, these features are common to most traditions.
Complementarity means that traditional marriages are between men and women. Men and women are of complementary genders. Each brings to the marriage — and to parenting the children of the marriage — something that the other cannot offer.
Openness to children is a fundamental purpose of marriage. Marriage exists because sexual relations between men and women tend to result in children, and raising children is best done by the children’s natural parents. Throughout history, diverse cultures and faiths have recognised that marriage between one man and one woman as the best way to promote healthy families and societies.
Exclusiveness is another way of protecting children. Even in cultures with plural marriages, the bread-winning spouse is usually expected to forgo sexual relations outside of the marriage group so that the marriage group is not burdened with the support of extra-marital children, and not deprived of the benefits of such children.
Duration is about the promises that couples make to stay together. Even in our modern divorce-ridden culture, couples making their vows assume that the marriage will be more than a one-night stand.
Marriage between a man and a woman is important for children
There is considerable evidence that marriage offers the best environment in which to raise children. Children are most likely to thrive physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially when raised by a mother and father who are married to one another.
The statistics on the abuse of children in various family structures are revealing. Being raised by your married biological parents wins hands down over all other family types. Next comes one biological parent married to a step-parent (six times more likely to be abused), one biological parent alone (14 times), cohabiting biological parents (20 times), and biological mother with live-in boyfriend (33 times).
Many children grow up without their biological parents — because a parent has been taken from them by illness, accident, or adult decisions. These cases are not ideal, but neither are they intentional. A healthy society provides support mechanisms for such children.
If we change the definition of marriage as proposed by this bill, we open the door for the creation of children (through surrogacy and similar arrangements) who are intended to be without their biological parents from before their conception. A healthy society does not intentionally deprive children of something so fundamental and important.
The government has the right and the duty to protect natural marriage
Children are government’s primary reason for being in the business of registering and legislating around marriage.
In tradition, marriage is both a private and a public affair. Public, in that what the couple do affects their parents and their offspring, and therefore the community. Private, in that marriage is a covenant between a man, a woman, and God (whoever or whatever you perceive God to be).
In our own Western tradition, entering a marriage evolved from being a family matter, to one recorded by the Church, to one recorded by the State. Marriage became a matter for legislation (first Church legislation then government legislation) because it affects children. There are legal, social, and financial implications for those children and their mothers who lack the protection of a recognised marriage bond. Adults who leave their children suffer fewer economic disadvantages than those who stay, and children suffer most of all – economically, emotionally, and often physically.
In modern Western society, the smallest unit of the community is often considered to be a single individual. This is a false view of human nature; a view that ignores the importance of the family (defined as mother, father and children) as a fundamental building block of society, and one that needs to be challenged for our moral and emotional good health.
Making changes to a practice thousands of years old will have unintended — and unexpected — consequences
Changing the definition of marriage is likely to have several unintended consequences.
First, changing the definition is an adult-centred, rather than child-centred, decision. It is, however, likely to have consequences for children — and for the medical ethical decisions involved in artificial support for conception and procreation.
Second, legislating once to change the definition of marriage will make it more difficult in the future to refuse further changes, such as those to allow polygamy or adult-consent incest, or those to allow fixed term marriages.
Third, if the Bill is passed, New Zealand legislation will enshrine the concept that refusing marriage to a same-sex couple is discrimination. Even if religious exemptions are permitted for churches who do not wish to perform same-sex marriages, this concept is likely to be used in future to punish those whose conscience does not allow them to perform services for same-sex weddings: such as those who hire venues, take photographs, hire , act as celebrants (etc etc). Such action would be both divisive and expensive.
There are likely to be many other changes. Social science is better are studying what has happened than deciding what will happen. Conserving useful traditions is one way of avoiding unintended negative consequences.
The traditional view of marriage is important to many New Zealanders
Marriage — understood as a commitment between one man and one woman — is a treasured social institution in the Judeo-Christian heritage that the majority of New Zealanders share. Complementarity in marriage is also important in Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, Pacific, and African traditions.
A change to the legal definition of marriage that removes it from the traditional understanding of this large segment of the New Zealand population will not only cause distress to these people, but will also create dissonance, Because of the conflict between their respect for the law and their distaste for this legislation.
Equality is vital, but we don’t need to redefine marriage to achieve equality
Marriage, the Bill says, is a fundamental human right. The Bill refers to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
The statement as it stands has a lot of qualifiers. Men and women. Of full age. Free and full consent. The right is not an absolute. Rights are always limited by the interests and rights of others. You have the right to swing your arms, but that right stops a short distance from the body of others. You have the right to say whatever you like, but that right doesn’t permit you to tell lies about others. So we each have the right to marry. But we must be unmarried and of age, and we must be able to give our informed consent. Our prospective partner must also be unmarried and of age, and able to give informed consent. We cannot marry close kin. The proposed amendment does not remove any of these other limitations. So a limit on the application of the right is not, in itself, a problem.
It remains to be proven that the limitation of marriage to people of different genders is, then, an equality issue.
The Bill’s preamble claims that the prohibition on marriage between people of the same gender is a matter of discrimination, but to prove discrimination one must first prove harm. How are people in New Zealand harmed by making their public registered commitment under the Civil Unions Act rather than the Marriage Act? What are the differences between the two pieces of legislation that mean people are not being treated equally?
The Preamble to the Bill objects to ‘limiting that human right [to marry] to one group’. It’s a pretty big claim that only one group can marry. That group contains all the millions of people who marry every year – varying ages, races, religions, ethnicities, nationalities, education levels, interests, occupations, and countless other differences that make combining them unlikely. All they have in common is that each couple is heterosexual. And the rationale, by implication, contrasts them with another group — similarly diverse — but not heterosexual. Surely there are more important things to define people by than who they prefer to have sex with?
Civil union partnerships already offer the benefits of marriage to those who do not fit the current definition because they are same sex, but who are otherwise eligible. This legislation is not needed.
Redefining words in the English language is not an appropriate role for legislation
In this Bill, government is being asked to change the effect of an existing law simply by changing the definition of a key word. This would be an unfortunate precedent.
Since the word first entered our language in the twelfth century, ‘marriage’ with no modifying describer means one man and one woman in a legally recognised formal relationship that involves certain rights and duties, including copulation and responsibilities towards any children thereby conceived. So did the precursor word in Old French, and its precursor in Latin.
While other societies may have different family forms, they also have words in their own language to describe these forms. The word marriage has takes its meaning from the English tradition because it is an English word.
The Bill is not necessary
In New Zealand, people have a choice about which legislation they make their formal commitment under. Heterosexual couples can apply for a marriage license under the Marriage Act. Any couple can apply for a license to form a civil union under the Civil Unions Act. The Civil Unions Act changed more than 140 pieces of legislation to give civil union couples the same legal rights as married couples, with two exceptions: they cannot adopt as a couple, and there are some questions around maintenance for children of a household if the relationship splits up. If there are questions about these – and there are – let’s have legislation on the table about these points, and let’s debate them honestly and openly. The current Bill is trying to sneak in changes by changing the definition of the name of an important and treasured social institution.
 For example, ‘Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health’, Deborah A. Dawson, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 573-584, Published by: National Council on Family Relations;
‘Family Structure and Child Well-Being: The Significance of Parental Cohabitation’, Susan L. Brown*,Journal of Marriage and Family, Volume 66, Issue 2, pages 351–367, May 2004;
‘Social Policies, Family Types and Child Outcomes in Selected OECD Countries’, Sheila B. Kamerman, Michelle Neuman, Jane Waldfogel, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, 20 May 2003, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers.
 For example, Broken homes and battered children A study of the relationship between child abuse and family type, Whelan, R, Family Education Trust, Oxford (United Kingdom), 1994;
Who abuses children?, By Alister Lamont, Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, February 2011, 7 pp. ISSN 1448-9112 (Online).