by Peter Sprigg
January 11, 2010
On January 5, both houses of the Rhode Island legislature overrode (by large margins) Gov. Donald Carcieris veto of a bill that would have given “domestic partners” the authority to make funeral arrangements for one another. Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr was one who took the governor to task (Carcieris heartless, but not surprising piece of work, November 13, 2009).
Toward the end of this article, Kerr says “if you could let me know exactly what traditional marriage is I’d appreciate it.” Perhaps as good a definition as any is that offered by scholar David Blankenhorn in his 2007 book, The Future of Marriage. He writes:
“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from that union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents… . It also reflects one idea that does not change: For every child, a mother and a father.”
Kerr says, “I always thought it [marriage] was a lasting commitment between two people who love each other.” This sentence describes marriage but it does not define it. To say this about marriage, and conclude that same-sex relationships can be marriages too, is somewhat like saying, “An automobile is a wheeled vehicle of transportation—and therefore a bicycle is an automobile, too.”
In the scope of human history, “love” is a fairly recent addition to most people’s concept of marriage. Many cultures have practiced arranged marriages in which “love” is not a prerequisite, yet no anthropologists would suggest that these are not “marriages.” Even “commitment,” while desirable in marriage, is not a requirement for it. Some people who divorce lack commitment, but it does not mean that their marriage never existed.
No, the one essential, irreducible characteristic necessary for marriage is the presence of both a man and a woman. Some cultures have allowed polygamous marriages with more than one man or woman, but never less than one of each.
The reason why the marriage of a man and a woman is privileged over all other human relationships, and treated as a social institution rather than as a purely private liaison, is because it is the only relationship capable of naturally reproducing the human race. This is an essential social function, without which society cannot survive. The male-female union is the one absolutely necessary relationship.
Of course, not every opposite-sex couple has children, or intends to. But it is a mistake to base the definition of marriage on the reasons why individual couples choose to marry. The real issue is why society treats marriage as a public institutionand the answer is because of its role in the procreation and rearing of the next generation.
This legislation was largely prompted by a man named Mark Goldberg and his frustrations following the death of his partner Ron Hanby. These circumstances were sadand almost unique. Few people die without having any living family members (family being defined as people related by blood, marriage, or adoption) to make decisions regarding their remains. It is a cliche in the legal profession that hard cases make bad law. This was a hard caseand made, unfortunately, for a bad piece of legislation. To deal with a situation like Mark Goldbergs by creating an entirely new, quasi-marital, legally recognized domestic relationship (domestic partners) under state law is like swatting a bee with a hammer.
Gov. Carcieri is absolutely right in saying such laws lead to an incremental erosion of marriage. We have seen exactly that process unfold in the states that have moved (either judicially or legislatively) toward redefining marriage in recent years.
Ironically, the explanation for why Bill S 0195 is unnecessary is found in the text of the bill itself. It delegates decision-making authority regarding funeral arrangements to a domestic partner only [t]o the extent that there is no funeral services contract in effect at the time of death for the benefit of the deceased person. In other words, people in same-sex relationships already have the ability to delegate to their partner decision-making regarding their funeral arrangementssimply by preparing a funeral services contract. Such a contract completely does away with any need for a blood relative to make decisions, and indeed overrides any choices that a relative might attempt to make.
If gay rights activists really want to help people like Ron Hanby and Mark Goldberg, they should work at educating people how to complete a funeral services contractnot exploit a tragic situation to create a Trojan horse for the redefinition of marriage.