How to argue against same sex marriage (part I)

In my contemporary moral problems class this semester we've been discussing same sex marriage.  We paid close attention to the Supreme Court oral arguments on Prop. 8 and DOMA last week.  We've been reading articles "pro" and "con"...and, honestly, it seems to me that all the best arguments are "pro".  I'm definitely in favor of legalizing gay marriage.  That said, lately I keep wondering: what if I were in a debate club, and I were assigned the "con" side? What would I say?  What's the best argument you could construct for marriage inequality?  Perhaps it's mischievous of me (since I do support same sex marriage), but I find this an interesting question. So, here goes: the best I can do on the "con" side.

The best case I think you could make against gay marriage has to do with procreative issues.  The problem, in a nutshell, is that same sex marriage normalizes donor-assisted reproduction.  Marriage goes hand in hand with creating a family, and same sex couples can't procreate without a sperm donor or egg donor. Now, dependence on gamete donors doesn't make same sex couples unique.  In some situations, infertile heterosexual couples use donor-assisted reproduction too.  But there's a difference: when heterosexual couples resort to gamete donation, they almost always regard their situation as abnormal--like having a broken leg.  Infertile heterosexual couples will typically spend years pursuing medical remedies, so they can avoided donor gametes.  When they do go the donor route, it's fair to say they see that as second best, not at all as normal.  By contrast, for a same sex couple it's completely normal to need donor gametes. It's in the nature of a gay or lesbian relationship--the only route same sex couples have to making a baby with a biological connection to  either partner.  If gay marriage puts same sex couples on an equal footing with opposite sex couples, donor-assisted reproduction is also going to wind up on an equal footing with ordinary reproduction. 

Now, you may ask, would that be bad? Is there anything really wrong with donor-assisted reproduction?  Where's the problem?  I think we can point to a problem, so long as we don't think of "problem" in some medical sense. Problems don't have to involve a patient--someone in need of pain relief, medical care, psychiatric treatment, or what not.  Donor assisted reproduction doesn't yield people who are badly off in the "now we have a patient" sense. It just creates children who don't have the usual connection to both parents. Donor-origin children have to live with the thought that the parent they came from, in the biological sense, was a mere egg or sperm donor.  That gives the child an existential problem, not a medical problem.  It's not the biggest problem in the world, but we wouldn't want to head toward a future in which lots and lots of children have that problem. And, the argument goes, creating a class of married couples who by nature must reproduce that way will lead us in that direction.  This is not just because of their donor-origin children existing, but because of the message that same sex marrying sends: "this way of coupling and creating a family is perfectly normal and no worse than the heterosexual way."

Now, is the procreative message really inevitable?  Could the message be, more simply, "this way of coupling is perfectly normal and no worse than the heterosexual way?" (That's surely a perfectly good message.) Could gay marriage normalize the coupling, but leave it open whether donor-assisted reproduction is just fine, or not just fine?  Easier said than done.  Once you normalize the coupling, it's hard to hang onto the idea that there's something not entirely good about the procreating that often results from that sort of coupling. It's hard to say that the marriages of same-sex couples are fine, but their only means of biological procreation is at all problematic.  Again, this is not so when it comes to heterosexual infertile couples. They know that donor-assisted reproduction is problematic. They don't want it, as evidenced by the vast amount of money and time they typically put into avoiding it.  So you can't "reductio" the present argument by saying it leads to a prohibition on the marriage of infertile couples: it doesn't.

Bottom line: we're heading for a revolution in our thinking about reproduction when donor-assisted reproduction is the norm in an identifiable group of married couples. Solution: don't let them be married couples.  Keep their coupling second class, precisely to avoid normalizing their approach to procreation.

There you go. That's the best I can do.  Since I'm for marriage equality, I can't possibly accept all of this.  I find it interesting to ponder the argument, though, to the extent that I also don't reject all of it.  I think there's some truth in the argument.  There are true premises and there are also false premises.  All to be teased out in part II of this post...coming soon.


ianbargain said...

So, you were not bullied out off the internet? Welcome back :-).
On topic, criticizing gay marriage based on problems potentially faced by their children should also deal with adoption by heterosexual problems where the problem is doubly felt.
In any case, this argument is moot because marriage is not necessary to have children. California alone has about 45000 young children brought up by gay couples according to a recent estimate. How much difference would marriage make to the number of potential children in gay families?

Alan Cooper said...

If I were to oppose same-sex marriage, it would be on the grounds that marriage is fundamentally a religious institution (in fact many - one for each religion) in which the state should not interfere (and which, in the US, the state should not endorse).

I would then go on to argue that the concept of "marriage" endorsed by the state should be clearly distinct from its religious homonyms and further that it be identified as purely a contract of mutual support and shared obligation in which a pair (or perhaps any number) of partners might agree to the some standard amount of responsibility for one another's debts and other obligations such as shared parenting of children (regardless of whether born from one of the partners or adopted).

I really don't see any strong connection with the question of surrogate pregnancy since, as you point out, this already occurs in standard heterosexual marriages and adoption has always(?) been an option regardless of marital status.

Also, it is not obvious that the right to be "married" implies the right to have genetic offspring even for heterosexual couples(and for homosexual couples it will be a long time before we are even able to consider creating a child of *both* parents).

Actually, if I were to object on biological grounds, it would be to the parenting rather than the conception and gestation, and would be based on the claim that a child needs parents of both genders. But such an objection would also rule out single parent adoption, might restrict the right to divorce, and might even require those who lose a spouse to immediately remarry. And regardless of what it says in the Bible I don't think I'll go that route.

Jean Kazez said...

ianbargain, Bullying not a factor, it's just been extremely time consuming dealing with "old, old age" (see last post).

Alan, I think the gov't has a legitimate interest in promoting marriage, even the religious kind, because it turns unrelated people into kin and makes them take care of each other over the long-term. Without that, the social safety net would have to do more work. The religious aspect is in the gov'ts interest to support, assuming it makes religious people more committed to their marriages.

Re: donor-assisted reproduction. The idea is that with same sex marriage, donor-assisted reproduction gets "normalized", not just that it happens. It's the "getting normalized" I'm putting forth as a problem.

ianbargain said...

I was only kidding about the bullying :-).

The trouble with hitching arguments against marriage to procreation is that it will work only if there is something which prohibits or strongly discourages unmarried couples from having children. Are you aware of any figures that shows that a significant number of gay couples refrain from having children solely or primarily because they are not married? Once a donor assisted child is born, the parent who did not contribute DNA can immediately become an adoptive parent and at that point all the rights and responsibilities of parenthood attaches. No state has tried to ban such adoption nor will such a law survive judicial scrutiny.

To the extent opposition against marriage is based on your argument, it is not necessarily "wrong" in terms of its goal - just futile in achieving it.

Scu said...

I am a debate team coach, and this is actually an argument we have been assigned, despite being pro-same sex marriage as a team. Randomly, here are our strategies (and I don't know if I should brag on this, but we have yet to lose on this side of the issue when we have had to debate it. Maybe I should feel shame for that).

(1) If the prompt/resolution is specific to the Supreme Court ruling to legalize same sex marriage, we tend to argue that is the wrong actor. Basically, this is Andrew Sullivan's concern, that there will be a large backlash, the issue will never be 'settled'. We contend the court should simply make the in between step of having the federal government recognize states that have legalized same sex marriage.

(2) if the prompt is not that specific, or if we just think we have the right judge, we run radical queer opposition to marriage (think Jack Halberstam in chapter 4 of Gaga Feminism). There is, of course, a large and long term radical queer critique of marriage (same sex and otherwise), and we simply endorse that.

We do this, because the conservative arguments for actually refusing same sex marriage are all, as you already know, just awful and unworkable, so we either have to complain about the mechanism and talk about backlash, or we have to critique the idea from a more radical place.

Jean Kazez said...

Aha--I was wondering how debate teams might approach this. That seems a lot more straightforward than the argument I'm putting forward, which is highly "squishy".

John Howard said...

Pretty well done argument about normalizing donor gametes. Donor gametes are eugenic and make people feel they don't have a right to use their own genes when better genes are offered.

Civil Unions should be defined as "marriage minus conception rights" so that they can be given to couples that are not allowed to reproduce together, like siblings and same-sex couples should be. It is bad to equate the right to reproduce naturally, together with our spouse using our own gametes, to the non-right to use donor gametes or do something radical like genetic engineering of stem cells to create "female sperm" or "male eggs." The fact is, people only have a right to procreate naturally, with someone of the other sex, so same-sex couples do not have a right to reproduce. And all marriages do.

What we need is the Egg and Sperm Civil Union Compromise.