June 22, 2004

June 22, 2004 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

More Than a "Lifestyle Choice"

Marriage in the 50 States

They've finally set a date. Senate leaders have announced that members will vote the week of July 12 whether to amend the Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

It's a big step, but members shouldn't get cold feet. An overview of the social-science data on marriage shows they shouldn't hesitate to say "I do" to defending marriage.

Remember the flap over Vice President Dan Quayle's criticism of TV's "Murphy Brown"? Unwed births had reached a new high in the early '90s, and the vice president lamented the nonchalant way the show's producers treated single motherhood. Social science research has since vindicated his argument: Decisions about sex, marriage and childbearing aren't merely personal. They have profound social consequences, particularly for children.

Today's sitcoms have moved on to themes of same-sex coupling and parenting, à la "Friends" and "Will and Grace." But the lesson we learned in the '90s about sex, marriage and the welfare of children still applies.

That lesson -- that marriage is more than a personal affair for individual fulfillment -- may have been summed up best a decade ago by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Her April 1993 Atlantic Monthly feature article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," explained how Americans' views on family had shifted from valuing social stability to valuing personal choice:

"Increasingly, political principles of individual rights and choice shape our understanding of family commitment and solidarity," she wrote. "… the family loses its central importance as an institution in the civil society, accomplishing certain social goals such as raising children and caring for its members, and becomes a means to achieving greater individual happiness -- a lifestyle choice."

Social science indicates that the intact family -- defined as a man and a woman who marry and raise their children together -- best ensures the current and future welfare of children and society. Adolescents in intact families are healthier, are less likely to be depressed, are less likely to repeat a grade, and have fewer developmental problems. By contrast, children in other family forms, as a group, are more likely to experience poverty, abuse, behavioral and emotional problems, lower academic achievement and drug use.

A free society requires a critical mass of individuals living in stable households independent of the state. The most secure household, the available research shows, is the intact family. No other family form has been able to provide the same level of social security. In all other common arrangements, the risk of negative individual outcomes and family disintegration is much greater, increasing the risk of dependence on state services. This explains government's interest in marriage. Among the many types of social relationships, marriage has always had a special place in all legal traditions because it is the foundation of the intact family.

By the mid '90s, a serious public policy debate about reinforcing and restoring marriage emerged on the basis of the social-science data. Policy decisions -- such as welfare reform -- were grounded in such data. We have seen some of the fruit of those efforts in declining rates of teen sex and childbearing.

But the debate over same-sex marriage hasn't been adequately framed in social-welfare terms, which we know from experience we shouldn't overlook. The interest of children and general social stability are largely neglected. Back is the discredited Murphy Brown rationale: Personal fulfillment and individual rights trump all other considerations.

The current proposal to overhaul marriage is not anchored in sound research. We know relatively little about the long-term effects of homosexual relationships on partners and even less about the children raised in such households. This absence of data should give us pause before reconfiguring the basic institution of society.

Advocates of same-sex marriage want us to institutionalize a social experiment, i.e., same-sex coupling and parenting, by elevating it in law to the status of the oldest of institutions: marriage. To do so, though, would be a mistake.

Yes, Americans have become more tolerant of other types of experimentation --extramarital sex, cohabitation, single parenting. But they don't equate them with marriage. None of these experiments has been regarded in law as the equivalent of the intact family. Yet this is precisely what we're being asked to do with same-sex marriage.

The public campaign for legal recognition of same-sex unions may try to tug at America's heartstrings. But as every dad tells his daughter, you don't accept a marriage proposal on feelings alone. In this case, we should listen to what the data tell us -- and turn down the same-sex marriage offer.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Related Issues: Family and Marriage

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