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Blogs Coffee House

The battle over complementarity of the sexes is already lost

14 June 2012

10:30 AM

14 June 2012

10:30 AM

Today is the last day of the Government’s consultation about its gay marriage proposals. But as an editorial in the Telegraph points out, this is a more limited exercise than it sounds…you’re not being asked whether it’s a good idea for gay people to marry so much as how you think the Government should implement its proposals. Consultation, not.

But since the opportunity is there, I’m all for sounding off about whether gay people should marry in the first place, as the Church of England has done, with uncharacteristic robustness, in its official response to the proposals. I can’t myself, see why marriage, as a status and a concept and a name, shouldn’t be left in its traditional incarnation, between a man and a woman. Because all the possible rights attached to marriage already belong to civil partnerships.

I took part in a debate on the subject last week at the British Academy. It was a rather good-tempered affair, with markedly little in the way of hairpulling, chaired with notable neutrality by the Reformation historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch. What emerged from the contribution from the Oxford lawyer, Leslie Green, was confirmation that civil partnerships, to all intents and purposes, replicate marriage. The only practical respects in which the two things differ is in the ‘legal portability’ of the concept of marriage – viz, when you go abroad, people understand what you mean by being married – and the places where you can get married. It’s not a big enough difference, I’d have thought, to justify upending the overwhelming traditional consensus on what marriage involves.

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My own take on it is that civil partnerships are an interesting and novel way to express homosexual relationships, whether in their more open forms – and gay relationships are in general characterised by greater openness than heterosexual marriages – or in their comfortable, companionate aspect. Civil partnerships are something new, and gay people can make of them what they will, including it may be said, extending the concept to companion-siblings, whose bond is self-evidently non-sexual. (I may say that at the drinks afterwards, one gay man said tartly I seemed to have little notion of how straight relationships work. Which is probably true.)

But I could, even as I spoke, see the problem with one bit of my own argument. The great and fundamental argument for heterosexual marriage is the complementarity of the sexes, men and women. And while this holds good in general, it’s especially critical when it comes to the upbringing of children. Most of us who were brought up by two parents were brought up by a mother and father. And we take our cues about how gender works from our parents. My own children do, I know, including my five year old daughter, who wants to be a boy. Single sex couples not only don’t have reproductive potential, except in the way of artificial and morally problematic gamete donation and surrogacy, they also don’t have the potential to bring to child-raising the attributes of both sexes.

No-one pointed out, which they could have done, that this battle has, however, already been lost. The argument about whether a gay couple is quite as good as a heterosexual one when it comes to child-rearing was lost twice over. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act removed from the provision of IVF any acknowledgement a child’s need for a father, the upshot of which is that NICE has recommended that gay couples, as well as those over 40, should be given the same rights to fertility treatment as heterosexuals. (Dropping the requirement has already resulted in a significant increase in the number of lesbians getting treatment.) The other critical point was Labour’s Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which were, I may add, supported by most senior Tories. That ended up with Catholic adoption agencies which, by common consent did an excellent job in finding families for difficult to place children, being banned from operating, unless they agreed to treat gay and heterosexual would-be parents equally. They wouldn’t and they were. (It must be said that those agencies did sometimes place children with gay people, on an unacknowledged, pragmatic basis.)

These two bits of legislation, which, as I say, were supported by senior Tories, effectively repudiated the notion that men and women together, are on the whole to be preferred as parents to single sex couples in that they bring different and complementary attributes to parenting. And nothing the churches could say or do could alter that revolutionary change in our understanding of what parenting involves and what children need. (The other, more obvious and pressing social problem, about the explosion in the extent of single motherhood, is outside the scope of the legal debate, as the columnist Peter Hitchens has trenchantly pointed out.)

The most critical element of this argument has, then, already been lost. It’s still, I think, worth making a stand about marriage as being properly between a man and a woman on the grounds of complementarity and tradition and as an acknowledgement of the original, primal function of marriage as an natural environment for creating and raising children. But the fight is over our common understanding of marriage, not about practicalities. And for that, David Cameron, whose bright idea this was, is quite as much responsible as anyone.

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