Issues related to the definition of marriage, as established and recognized by cultures and governments, will never end. As a social convention set up by humans whose knowledge and values evolve over time, it will always be prone to disagreement and controversy. Nature doesn’t care so long as some genetically encoded information persists.
The definition changes not just over time but also across societies. Polygamy, for instance, although illegal in the United States, is permitted under Islamic law. And even if the maximum number of spouses is settled, there might be disagreement on their gender, minimum age and race. It is also worth mentioning that interracial marriage was only fully legal in the United States in 1967.
Recently, a group of Western states reviewed the definition of marriage and considered including gay marriage. The move usually suffers strong opposition by conservatives — mainly due to religious reasons — but its inevitable passing is only a matter of time, as there really isn’t any reasonable argument against it.
But the case is not so simple. It is not just about a person, or a group of justices, rejecting the regulation of certain aspects of the private life of other individuals. Marriage is legally linked to other factors of life in society. In the United States, for instance, marital status affects rights, privileges and benefits, as manifested in 1,138 statutory provisions. Marriage equality advocates are certainly correct in asking why these rights should be conferred to some couples and not to others, given the intricacies of the definition.
The legal consequences of marriage put governments in a delicate position. As conservatives have been arguing, if the threshold is extended this time, what will prevent it from moving even further? Although that may seem unrealistic in current times, family life and the way of raising children are changing rapidly — an increasing number of kids are taken care of by grandparents if parents have to work long hours or by single parents who are divorced. Married couples are forced to live apart for long periods due to work or study-related travels. Women tend to have children later in life so they can focus on their careers.
Indeed, how can one logically argue against three or four people who love each other and want to commit to living a life together, or the question of whether they are allowed to join their credit scores when buying a house? In fact, why should a person get certain benefits just for being married? Is it not discriminatory that unmarried people have to pay more in taxes and work harder to buy certain goods?
As the notion of family evolves, lawmakers should focus more on the rights of individuals, especially potential offspring and adopted children, rather than on the benefits for married people themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 2 print edition. Marcelo Cicconet is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]