Support for marriage equality reflects value given to relationship

Opinion: Marriage in the past was often about property and family alliances


When discussing same- sex marriage we must be careful that we do not attribute the character of universal truth to forms of marriage and family that are constructions of specific societies or religious beliefs.

While traditionally marriage has been between men and women (though historically there are examples of forms of “marriage” between people of the same sex), marriage through the ages has not been limited to a relationship between one man and one woman.

Polygamy has been, and still is, a feature of many societies, and the Old Testament is replete with examples. However, society moves on and where women have more equal status with men and are more able to survive without male protection, polygamy is less likely.

In this part of the world until very recently, mutual affection was not a priority in marriage.

Keeping property
For the wealthy it was much more likely to involve forging alliances and keeping property within families and communities, as evidenced by the preval- ence of arranged marriages throughout Europe, including Ireland, into the last century.

For many centuries relationships between the poor, who had no property to pass on, were less formal and might not involve marriage at all.

It is true too that marriage has generally been associated with propagating and rearing children. But we should not overemphasise this . Taken to its logical conclusion, it would mean that a marriage between, say, a couple over 50, or a couple who know they cannot conceive for medical reasons, or indeed a couple who have no wish to have children, would not be a valid marriage.

Yet those who argue that marriage is all about providing an environment for the rearing of children do not, as far as I know, argue in favour of denying such heterosexual couples the right to marry.

Society’s understanding of marriage has changed, particularly in the last century, which brought widespread availability of both contraception and divorce, and the emergence of different family forms. For better or worse, society now emphasises the compatibility of the couple and their mutual love as the cornerstone of marriage.

The Catholic Church, which opposed legalising contraception and divorce because they ran counter to its conception of marriage, emphasises instead the importance of a secure environment for children, as against the wishes of adults.

This is its right. However, it cannot claim these views are universal truths that prevailed through history or are accepted today by society as a whole.

Today we emphasise the importance of the relationship between the couple in marriage. This is probably why a majority of those polled agreed with same-sex marriage.

Many issues raised by opponents of same-sex marriage around children are not exclusively related to gay couples. This is particularly so with surrogacy. The use of surrogacy by couples who cannot conceive children together themselves raises very serious ethical and moral questions, especially when it is a commercial enterprise.

But the vast majority of those using surrogacy are married couples seeking to create a nuclear family with the closest possible biological links between parents and child – as close as possible to the “traditional” form of family advocated by opponents of same-sex marriage. The number of gay couples involved is minuscule.

We can reiterate that, statistically, children do best when reared by their father and mother in a close, loving relationship. But this is not available to many children, and statistics never tell the whole story. Nor do they answer the real problems of real children in the many and varied family forms in modern society.

As a society we can lecture people on how they conduct relationships, but we cannot direct them. What we can do is try to ensure all children are secure and safe, and have adequate food, housing, clothing and education.

Proven indicators
These are proven indicators of children’s wellbeing and ability to realise their potential, and are within our collective control. How other people conduct their relationships is not.

Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project and former legal affairs editor of The Irish Times. She is writing here in a personal capacity

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