IS MARRIAGE intrinsically connected to bearing and raising children? Advocates of same-sex marriage often argue peremptorily that it is not .
"In today's society, the importance of marriage is relational and not procreational," Yale law professor William Eskridge asserts in "The Case for Same-Sex Marriage."
The privileged status of marriage in modern society, in other words, has to do with the love and commitment of the spouses, not with the needs of any children those spouses may produce. In its 2003 Goodridge decision mandating same-sex marriage, the Supreme Judicial Court was even more emphatic. To the argument that the state's interest in marriage is connected to procreation, the SJC replied categorically: "This is incorrect."
As evidence that marriage and childrearing are not fundamentally related, same-sex marriage proponents frequently point out that married couples aren't required to have children. No law prevents infertile couples from marrying or orders childless marriages dissolved. If procreation is so important to marriage, they say, why should elderly couples, or couples determined not to have children, be permitted to wed?
Now a group of same-sex marriage supporters in Washington state has taken that argument to what even they describe as an "absurd" length.
Archly calling themselves the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance, the activists are promoting Initiative 957, a ballot measure that would restrict marriage rights to men and women capable of bearing children.
Couples would be required to have a child within three years of getting married, or their marriage would be annulled. Non procreating couples could stay together if they wished, but their union would be classified as "unrecognized," and they would be legally ineligible for marital benefits.
The activists behind this proposal don't expect it to become law. Even if voters were to approve something so outlandish, the Washington Supreme Court would strike it down.
Organizer Gregory Gadow says the initiative is offered "in the spirit of political street theater." On the group's website, however, his tone takes on a harder edge. "At the very least, it should be good fun to see the social conservatives who have long screamed that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation be forced to choke on their own rhetoric."
But Gadow and his fellow activists are assaulting a straw man. No mainstream opponent of same-sex marriage claims that having children is the sole purpose of wedlock. Marriages can serve any number of purposes -- cementing the bond between partners, guaranteeing financial security, having a legitimate sexual outlet, ensuring companionship, and so on. People get married for various reasons; the desire to raise a family is only one of them.
What makes marriage a public institution, however -- the reason it is regulated by law and given an elevated legal status -- is that it provides something no healthy society can do without: a stable environment in which men and women can create and bring up the next generation, and in which children can enter the world with mothers and fathers committed to their well-being.
Because sex between men and women can result in children, and because children tend to do best when raised by their mothers and fathers, society has a vested interest in encouraging long-term, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Not all married couples reproduce. But every opposite-sex marriage has the ability to give a father and a mother to any child the couple creates or adopts. That is something no same-sex couple can provide, which is one reason homosexual marriage has never been a social institution.
Of course procreation is not the only reason to marry, but to insist that marriage is not closely related to having children is like arguing, to use an analogy offered by marriage scholar David Blankenhorn, that cars are not intrinsically connected to driving.
"When you acquire ownership of a car," Blankenhorn writes in his forthcoming book, "The Future of Marriage," "society does not impose upon you a binding obligation to drive it. If you buy a car but fail to drive it, the state does not for that reason revoke your driver's license. . . . Cars can be about many things, including pleasure, aesthetics, economic gain, and social status." But whether any particular car is driven or not, cars and driving are intrinsically linked.
Similarly, whatever the circumstances of any married couple, marriage and procreation are intrinsically connected. That is why there has always been a public stake in the marriage of husbands and wives. And why no such stake exists in the union of same-sex couples.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.