December 24th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: A reflection on Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why Abbott will win the next election

MARRIAGE: Mature leadership needed in emotional marriage debate

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Behind the trade-induced global financial crisis

RESOURCES: Building a better future without a carbon tax

AFRICA: How free enterprise is transforming Africa

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Presidential elections confirm Taiwan's vibrant democracy

EUTHANASIA I: The ever-worsening problem of elder abuse

EUTHANASIA II: Netherlands: "Grim reaper on wheels" mobile death squads

OPINION: The moral causes of Europe's predicament

BOOK REVIEW Gallipoli, the Somme, then German captivity

BOOK REVIEW A Christian-themed Viking epic

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Mature leadership needed in emotional marriage debate

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, December 24, 2011

The marriage debate has become so deeply personal and emotional that it can be difficult to approach the issue objectively.

The personal dimension of the debate was highlighted at the ALP’s national conference, where ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr argued the case for marriage reform on the basis of ending discrimination. “We are not nameless, faceless people who live on the margins of society,” he said. “Gay and lesbian Australians deserve the respect and dignity afforded to others; we deserve equality.”

Barr is right: we are all equal before the law and should be treated as such. But it is one thing to affirm the inarguable principle of the equal dignity of every person; it is another thing entirely to suggest that the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman marginalises gay and lesbian members of the community.

The narrative of personal marginalisation and discrimination is powerful. Moreover, it is imperative that the marginalisation experienced by gay and lesbian Australians not be downplayed or dismissed. But, powerful as it may be, the narrative of marginalisation is no justification for the redefinition of marriage.

The current definition of marriage does not denigrate same-sex attracted Australians. It simply reflects the long-standing view that one kind of relationship — the exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman — stands apart from all other kinds of relationships as being especially significant to society. Recognising that a particular kind of relationship has a special significance is not the same as denigrating other kinds of relationships, or denigrating persons in those relationships.

The central question in the marriage debate is therefore whether, in fact, this one kind of relationship — the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others for life — is sufficiently significant to warrant the special attention of the state. If so, legislators can and should confidently resist the push redefine marriage.

In short, it’s not about discrimination; it’s about whether there are good reasons for the state to treat different kinds of relationships differently. If the lifelong, heterosexual union is especially significant to society, then all Australians ought to be able to recognise the fact, regardless of their personal sexual orientation or preferences.

However this requires a degree of maturity and objectivity that is lacking in the current debate. If sound public policy is to prevail, we must put aside emotion and personal biases, and engage in a dispassionate appraisal of whether the lifelong, exclusive heterosexual union is in fact uniquely important to society.

 Unique relationship

At the risk of stating the obvious, biology sets the male-female sexual union apart, distinguishing the heterosexual union from every other type of sexual union, and every other kind of non-sexual relationship.

Our species reproduces heterosexually. Even in this age of artificial reproductive technology (ART), every child has a biological mother and father. Even in this age of contraception, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is inherently oriented towards the creation of children.

The state has a special interest — and bears significant responsibilities — in all matters relating to children, for example in childhood education, children’s health and welfare, and significantly, in relation to the use of ARTs. The state’s special interest in children and childhood is uncontroversial: children comprise the future of the very societies into which they are born.

Given the state’s special interest in children, it is no surprise that the state should also have a special interest in the only relationship whose central faculty is to create new life: the sexual union of a man and a woman. To acknowledge the state’s special interest in this unique relationship is not to cast aspersions on other kinds of relationships, or to undermine the inherent dignity of same-sex attracted persons. It is simply to acknowledge “the facts of life”.

Why exclusive?

While those arguing in favour of same-sex marriage take grave offence at the definition of marriage being restricted to heterosexual unions, the other key elements of marriage — that it is exclusive; that it is for life — are not usually called into question.

This is curious because, other than in the context of the inherently life-generating heterosexual union, there is no obvious reason for the state to go about solemnly binding couples in lifelong, exclusive relationships. For the state to solemnise such an extraordinary commitment and make it legally binding, there must be an extraordinary explanation.

Naturally, there is one.

More than simply having a general interest in relationship stability, the state has an extraordinary interest in preserving lifelong unity in the context of the one relationship which is naturally geared towards the creation of a new biological family unit: the sexual union of one man and one woman. Where the unity and integrity of the biological family are maintained from cradle to grave, the rights and interests of children are best protected.

The most important rights and interests affected by marriage are children’s rights and interests. By fostering lifelong unity and stability between a man and a woman, marriage helps to ensure that the child’s basic right to not be separated from his or her biological parents is not violated.

Quite apart from being protected under both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the child’s right to not be separated from his or her parents has come under special attention in Australia, even moving governments to issue apologies to several past generations of children who had suffered the indignity of being abruptly and unjustifiably separated from their families.

And as the recent federal inquiry into donor conception reveals, the same painful questions regarding the state’s complicity in separating children from their parents are now being asked by persons brought into the world through the use of donated gametes.

As a society we have gradually come to accept and acknowledge that, even where the motives are honourable, and even where the child stands to benefit in some way, neither the state nor self-interested individuals have the right to separate a child from his or her biological family unnecessarily.

In the context of the sexual union of a man and a woman, the prospect of protecting the child’s basic right, and of preserving the biological integrity of the family from cradle to grave, provides a powerful and unique rationale for encouraging lifelong, exclusive fidelity between spouses.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that, according to a 2004 report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 73.6 per cent of children under 18 in Australia do in fact live with their biological parents in intact families. It is a statistic one expects most Australians would applaud: the more children growing up in such circumstances, the better.

The institution of marriage is instrumental in realising this ideal, by binding a man, a woman and their biological children in a stable family unit. Ultimately, in the context of the lifelong, male-female sexual union, the rights of children and the rights of adults do not compete.

The same cannot be said for the union of same-sex couples. For, even though there may be some benefits associated with the decision of two men or two women to commit to one another for life, such relationships are not inherently oriented towards creating children, and, as such, the state simply does not have the same interest in two men or two women promising exclusive fidelity to one another “for as long as they both shall live”.

Moreover, while it is true that in the minority of cases where same-sex couples are raising children, such a commitment may provide stability for children, it also perpetuates the unavoidable denial of the child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her biological mum and dad. The adults’ interests effectively displace certain of the child’s most basic human rights.

These observations about the nature of different kinds of relationships illustrate that the state’s interest in establishing a legally binding institution for the lifelong, exclusive union of a man and a woman is unique, and that the rationale behind the institution does not readily transfer to same-sex relationships. It important to note, however, that there is nothing at all preventing any two (or more) people from privately committing to one another on whatever terms they choose.


As a community, we face formidable challenges in responding to the needs and interests of same-sex attracted persons, same-sex couples, and any of their children, and in ensuring that all are afforded due respect, dignity and equality before the law. We must work to ensure that gay and lesbian Australians are not made to feel like “nameless, faceless people who live on the margins of society”, as Andrew Barr has rightfully asserted. But responding to these challenges does not mean that we must redefine marriage, and in doing so, reject the unique importance of the heterosexual union.

Whether out of self-interest or out of fear of causing offence, we have in recent decades become increasingly reluctant to acknowledge that among the myriad relationships that colour human society, the lifelong, exclusive heterosexual union stands apart as being especially significant. But it does.

Rather than denying the fact by redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, legislators should be encouraged to confidently affirm it.

Doing so in the midst of an emotionally charged debate will not be easy; but an objective, dispassionate approach to the marriage debate is vital if sound public policy is to prevail.

Tim Cannon is a spokesman for the Australian Family Association. 

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