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Prop. 8 backers’ procreation argument doesn’t ring true

Capitol Journal

The notion that baby-making is the principal purpose of marriage in 21st century America is plain absurd. Let’s just say that upfront.

Arguably it never has been the main reason for matrimony. Of course, for some people it has been and still is. But that doesn’t make it a universally accepted concept.

Not being a psychologist, anthropologist, cleric or attorney, I’m a little out of my league here. I’m merely a hack columnist, a California native who writes about state government and politics.

And admittedly I didn’t pay much attention to the Proposition 8 campaign in 2008 when voters reinstated the ban on same-sex marriage, six months after the California Supreme Court had ruled that a previous ban approved in 2000 violated the state Constitution. I figured it was a gut vote for most people. They weren’t looking for a lot of pundit analysis.

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For the record, I voted against Prop. 8. I finally concluded a few years ago -- and wrote about it then -- that we had much more important things to worry about than what two people living together in a loving relationship were called: “partners” or “married.”

Many opponents of same-sex marriage argue that it violates God’s will. Maybe theirs. My God doesn’t fret about homosexuality. And I figure if gays and lesbians can gain some comfort and happiness from formal marriage, then let them. Congratulations and good luck.

In the heated Prop. 8 campaign, I don’t recall proponents pushing the idea that gay people don’t qualify for marriage licenses because the main purpose of wedlock is child production. If they had, I suspect some straight voters would have been offended -- as I was while reading their attorneys’ contention at the start of a federal court trial Monday to determine whether Prop. 8 violates U.S. constitutional rights of equal protection and due process.

The closest the Prop. 8 side came in the official voter guide argument was that “the best situation for a child is to be raised by a married mother and father.” That’s a legitimate debate. But it’s far different from what attorney Charles J. Cooper asserted in court: that procreation is the “central or defining purpose” of marriage.

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The ballot argument focused heavily on “the outrageous decision of four activist Supreme Court judges who ignored the will of the people” in overturning the original 2000 ban on gay marriage.

What the electorate has joined together, let no court put asunder?

Nonsense. The voters sometimes get it wrong. One example: In 1964, Californians voted to continue racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. They passed Prop. 14, an initiative that repealed legislation banning the bigotry. Fortunately, the Supreme Court overturned the voters’ will. Today, no sane person would think of advocating racial discrimination in real estate.

The idea that marriages are first and foremost about baby-making-and-rearing was expressed by Cooper in October in an unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the suit filed by two same-sex couples against Prop. 8.

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“We say that the central and defining purpose of marriage is to channel naturally procreative sexual activity between men and women into stable, enduring unions for the sake of begetting, nurturing and raising the next generation,” Cooper told U.S. Chief District Judge Vaughn R. Walker in San Francisco.

“Well,” the judge replied, “the last marriage that I performed, Mr. Cooper, involved a groom who was 95 and the bride was 83. I did not demand that they prove that they intended to engage in procreative activity. Now, was I missing something?”

“No, your honor.”

Cooper continued: “It’s simple biological reality that same-sex couples do not naturally procreate.”

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“Well, fair enough,” the judge said. “But procreation doesn’t require marriage.”

Harvard professor Nancy Cott, who has written a book on the history of marriage, offered the court this insight Tuesday:

“It’s a surprise to many people to learn that George Washington, who is often called the father of our country, was sterile. . . . This was an advantage in many people’s minds because he couldn’t establish a hereditary monarchy when he became president.”

Yes, we all know happily married, childless couples who benefit society without ever propagating. Some can’t produce children. Some choose not to. Some adopt. Some bring cats or dogs into the family. Whatever works. It’s really nobody’s business -- least of all the government’s.

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They get married for many reasons: companionship, physical attraction, financial protection, to make a commitment. . . . Many even get married, and stay married, because of love.

I called a UCLA history professor, Ruth Bloch, who says she wasn’t involved in the Prop. 8 campaign and is not a member of a gay rights groups, but did vote against the initiative.

I asked whether marriage is fundamentally about procreation. That idea “is certainly out of date,” she said. “Even back in the time of the Puritans, they didn’t only marry for procreation, they married for companionship.”

Marriage began in prehistoric times, Bloch says, as a way for men to acquire exclusive sexual access to a woman so they could guarantee that her children were his.

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In colonial America, she continues, “when men talked about how to choose a wife, it would be for economic reasons. They wanted someone industrious and frugal . . . . One of the key functions of marriage has had to do with transmission of property to successors.”

The idea of “love-based marriage,” Bloch adds, didn’t emerge until the late 18th century, “stoked” by the birth of the romance novel.

“A lot of people think that romantic love is what led to the evolution of divorce,” she says. “People didn’t like each other anymore, so their marriage was no good. Divorces only accelerated tremendously in the 20th century.”

So love leads to divorce.

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Just what is a “traditional marriage” anyway?

All I know is that if the inability to procreate “naturally” is the best argument for denying same-sex couples the right to marry, it doesn’t track logically. Judges will decide whether it does legally.

george.skelton@latimes.com


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