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Exerpts From Published Essays

Definition Vs. Regulation

by James Taranto, OpinionJournal.com (Best of the Web, July 15, 2005)

Andrew Sullivan had this little item on his blog the other day:

SODOMY WATCH: An obviously non-procreative couple gets married in Britain. Worse: “Simon is gifted with the organ.” I anticipate condemnation from Maggie Gallagher, Stanley Kurtz, and Pope Benedict XVI.

This is supposed to be a snide little throwaway line, but it actually lays bare the sophistry at the heart of Sullivan's argument for same-sex marriage.

The report to which Sullivan links appears in London's Daily Mail, and it describes the recent marriage of Simon Martin and Edna Townsend. He is 31; she is 70, a “sprightly grandmother.” They share an interest in music, which explains Sullivan's reference to “gifted with the organ” (really mature sense of humor there, Andrew!). Sullivan implies that because Gallagher, Kurtz and the pope rest their opposition to same-sex marriage in part on the procreative nature of matrimony, it is inconsistent of them to tolerate a marriage like Martin and Townsend's, in which having offspring is a biological impossibility.

For the sake of argument, let's suppose someone actually were arguing for a policy that would bar the Simon-Townsend nuptials--that is, for a law preventing couples whose age difference exceeds some limit from marrying, or prohibiting men under a certain age from marrying postmenopausal women.

This would be an argument about the regulation of marriage. And make no mistake, marriage is subject to a lot of regulations. Current law everywhere in America prohibits, for example, marriage between a parent and child or brother and sister; a couple in which one partner is below the age of consent (with some exceptions); a couple whose “marriage” is a sham for immigration purposes; or a couple in which one partner already is married to someone else, even if separated. There are solid public-policy grounds for all these limitations on marriage. Other restrictions are invidious, such as the bans on interracial marriage that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 1967.

In evaluating a proposal to ban marriages à la Simon and Townsend, one would weigh its effect on the couples involved against the purported public benefit of such a law. The reason no one has actually advocated such a ban is because it so obviously doesn't pass the test. Even if we disapprove of the Simon-Towsend union--and to be candid, this columnist finds it pretty creepy--it would be cruel to outlaw it; and because very few 31-year-old men have any interest in marrying septuagenarian women, the public benefit of such a law (i.e., encouraging fertility) would be vanishingly small.

The debate over same-sex marriage is entirely different. It is about the definition, not the regulation, of marriage. Merriam-Webster's entry on marriage confirms the point:

(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

For the entire history of mankind except the past few years, the first definition was the only one. That definition is broad enough to include forms of marriage that were once outlawed (exogamy) and others that are now outlawed (polygamy). But same-sex marriage requires a new definition. Note, however, that the original definition still has pride of place; same-sex marriage, according to the dictionary, is “marriage” only by analogy: “like that of traditional marriage.” Presumably if Sullivan were writing the dictionary, only the first definition would stand, minus the phrase “of the opposite sex.”

Legalizing same-sex marriage, then, represents a radical change in a bedrock social institution and thus is not comparable to any other reform of marriage law. This is why it generates such wide opposition even among people who harbor no antipathy toward homosexuals, and why it is much harder to stomach than any other gay-rights measure.