Procreation and Gay Marriage: A Followup

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I generally dislike back-and-forth exchanges in the blogosphere because they inevitably—and surprisingly quickly!—degrade into tedious semantic quibbling. Once both sides have had their say, I figure it’s best to call it quits and just let readers decide for themselves who they believe.

But I think I really do need to respond to Ross Douthat today. Douthat originally wrote that for the past ten years, the liberal side in the gay marriage debate has been “pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves.” I objected that the procreation argument had been originally injected into the debate by conservatives, not liberals. Here’s Douthat today:

The notion that nobody would have entertained what Drum later calls the “esoteric” idea that marriage has an essential link to the way that human beings procreate if desperate social conservatives hadn’t grasped at it is apparently quite a popular view, judging by the fact that other writers raised it on Twitter over the weekend, and its popularity testifies to the way that the gay marriage debate has encouraged a strange historical amnesia about the origins of marriage law.

If gay marriage opponents had essentially invented a procreative foundation for marriage in order to justify opposing same-sex wedlock, it would indeed be telling evidence of a movement groping for reasons to justify its bigotry. But of course that essential connection was assumed in Western law and culture long before gay marriage emerged as a controversy or a cause.

The reason I’m responding is that I think there’s just a misunderstanding here. There’s no question that marriage has been associated with procreation and child rearing for thousands of years, and I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t.

But I wasn’t talking about thousands of years in my post, and neither was Douthat in his original column. We were talking about the past ten years. And I wasn’t talking about the general connection of marriage with procreation, I was talking specifically about the notion that permitting gay marriage might cause straight couples to view the procreative functions of their own marriages differently.

My contention is that (a) this is indeed a fairly esoteric argument that few people would contrive on their own, and (b) it was indeed injected into the debate by the right. Liberals never mentioned it unless it was first brought up by a conservative as an argument against gay marriage. And while Douthat is certainly right that it didn’t spring out of nowhere, it wasn’t common to hear it in the 90s outside of activist circles. By the aughts, as other arguments began to lose their force, it started to become more mainstream.

I might be wrong about this, of course. But that’s all I’m saying. I just wanted to clear that up before it becomes conventional wisdom that Kevin Drum is a nitwit who denies that marriage has ever had anything to do with procreation. (For example, here and here.)

I do have some other issues with Douthat’s response, especially as it relates to the legal view of marriage, but if I indulge them I’ll just be proving my point about back-and-forth arguments drifting quickly into tedious extraneous issues that few people care about. So I’ll just shut up instead.

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