Column: Who benefits most from marriage? Children

by Colleen Carroll Campbell

Battles over same-sex marriage typically turn on arguments about gay rights, judicial activism, and views on homosexuality. Absent are answers to a more fundamental question: What is the public purpose of marriage?

In his new book, “The Future of Marriage,” author David Blankenhorn explains how confusion surrounding that question muddies our marriage debates and obscures what’s at stake in their outcome.

As president of the nonpartisan Institute for American Values, Blankenhorn has devoted his career to promoting marriage and responsible fatherhood. He has seen the social science studies affirming that the most proven way to ensure child well-being is to ensure that children are raised by their married, biological parents, since those children tend to fare better than children raised in other types of families on every measure from health and financial stability to graduation rates. Blankenhorn worries that this child-welfare ideal is endangered by a view increasingly prevalent among Americans: that marriage is merely another lifestyle choice, the public recognition of a private relationship with no intrinsic connection to parenthood.

That view is a historical anomaly. For thousands of years, marriage has existed in nearly every society for the purpose of ensuring that a child is raised by his mother and father. Far from simply blessing a private relationship between consenting adults, marriage has aimed to promote stable sexual unions between men and women whose public commitment creates a suitable context for child rearing.

In recent decades, factors ranging from increasing acceptance of sex outside marriage and wider use of contraception to the institution of no-fault divorce laws have gradually changed our view of marriage as a permanent, public bond linked to parenthood. A Pew survey released recently confirmed this trend, finding that most Americans now consider adult happiness, not child rearing, as the primary purpose of marriage and most do not consider children very important to a successful marriage.

Some see this severance of the link between love, marriage, and the baby carriage as social progress. Yet Blankenhorn sees a downside: rising rates of divorce, unmarried cohabitation, and births to unwed mothers that have resulted in more children growing up without a married mother and father.

Blankenhorn believes same-sex marriage will exacerbate this trend. By bestowing marriage’s benefits on same-sex couples, we are explicitly endorsing the view that children do not need both mothers and fathers, since children raised by same-sex couples will be deprived of one or the other. We are legally enshrining the view of marriage as a private relationship that has nothing to do with bridging the divide between the sexes or encouraging the presence of both fathers and mothers in the lives of their biological children.

This radical change would affect all Americans, by further eroding our fragile marriage culture. As Blankenhorn and other scholars have noted, international surveys show that people in countries where gay marriage and civil unions are widely accepted tend to be less positive about marriage, more accepting of divorce, and less inclined to believe that people who want children should marry.

Marriage survives in a culture as long as a critical mass of the population views it as the only socially acceptable context for child bearing and child rearing. When popular support for marriage drops too low, and public policy denies the unique value of marriage between a man and a woman as a guarantor of social stability and child welfare, fewer men and women marry. More children are deprived of the presence of their mothers and fathers. And marriage no longer serves its civic purpose, which has always been more about defending social stability and child welfare than validating adult desires.

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