Nature of Marriage Not for Benefit of Adults but for Procreation and Protection of Children

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
3 Jul 2015

Australian-born Dr Margaret Somerville Founder and Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Canada

The principle and sanction of marriage is not based on whether two adults love each other but is about recognising the inherently reproductive human relationship between a man and a woman, and protecting and promoting the well-being of the family that results, says internationally-renowned medical ethicist and lawyer, Dr Margaret Somerville.

"Reproduction is the fundamental occurrence on which ultimately the future of human life depends. That is the primary reason why marriage is important to society. By institutionalising the relationship between a man and a woman that has the inherent capacity to transmit life, marriage symbolises and engenders respect for the transmission of human life," she says.

The Adelaide-born founder and Director of Canada's McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and the holder of professorships in both the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Medicine at McGill University believes that redefining the meaning and nature of marriage by permitting same sex couples to legally marry does not consider the rights of the child.

"Under ethical principles, we must always ethically favour the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable and those who are unable to exercise decision-making themselves, which in this instance is unquestionably the child," she says.

Dr Somerville makes it clear that her arguments against the legalisation of same sex marriage have nothing to do with discrimination against people of same sex attraction.

"I oppose discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, I believe civil partnerships open to both opposite sex and same sex couples should be legally recognised and that the partners, whether same sex or opposite sex are entitled to the same benefits and protections under the law," she says.

Although raised a Catholic and rediscovering her faith three decades later, her opposition to marriage being redefined to include same-sex couples has nothing to do with religion or religious beliefs but is secularly-based, grounded in ethics as well as being a result of first-hand experience of the consequences and changes to society once same sex marriage becomes legal.

On 20 July, 2005, almost exactly 10 years ago, Canada became the fourth country in the world outside Europe to legalise same sex marriage with the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act which provided gender neutral definition.

Now with the recent Irish referendum voting "yes" to same sex marriage and the US Supreme Court's decision at the weekend to legalise marriage between same sex couples in each of the nation's 50 states, Australia's Federal politicians look set to debate the issue as early as next month when Parliament resumes.

Margaret Somerville's upcoming book Bird on an Ethics Wire, Battles about Values in the Culture Wars

Dr Somerville, who is currently in Australia visiting family, warns against Australia following in the footsteps of Canada, Ireland and the US, and is particularly troubled by the unprecedented rise in assisted human reproductive technologies and genetic technologies by same sex couples in order to create a family. She is also disturbed by the number of court cases over the custody of children of same sex couples that have occurred in both Canada and parts of the US by sperm donor fathers, lesbian partners unrelated to the child by blood or during the divorce of a same sex couple.

"For thousands of years, the idea that children - at least those born into a marriage - had rights with respect to their biological parents was taken for granted and reflected in law and public policy.  Likewise, children's rights with respect to their biological origins were not an issue when there was no technoscience that could be used to manipulate or change those origins. A baby could only be conceived in vivo through good old fashioned sex. But with assisted human reproductive technologies and genetic technologies, this is no longer the case," she says.

Not only do children have a right to know who their biological parents and families are, but Dr Somerville warns that the broader definitions of marriage in countries such as Canada are unravelling the all-important child-parental biological bond.

As a result of the legalisation of same sex marriage in Canada, the term "natural parent" has been replaced with "legal parent" while the universal terms "mother" and "father" are no longer included on Canadian birth certificates which are now simply known as "parent 1" and "parent 2."

"In schools at kindergarten level children are now being taught there are all kinds of families and you can have two mummies or two daddies or a mummy and a daddy or a grandmother and a mummy," she says. "But once you move away from the fundamental biological relationship defining marriage as one between a man and a woman for the purposes of procreation, marriage becomes open to a range of interpretations, with some people in Canada already advocating further changes in the law to make polygamy legal."

Currently polygamy - the marriage of one man to two or more wives - is illegal in Canada but the law has been challenged, most recently in 2011.The landmark case in a British Columbian court focussed on the polygamous community of Bountiful, and became a constitutional test case after the failed prosecution of two men from the community who were charged in 2009 with practising polygamy.

Despite Canada's law against polygamy being upheld, more challenges are expected with opponents of the judge's ruling claiming the court's decision was "an affront to the most basic rights guaranteed under the charter - freedom of religion and the freedom of association."

Not only has the legalisation of same sex marriages broadened the meaning of marriage but is in direct contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 23 which states that men and women have a right to marry and to found a family.

Both mothers and fathers needed to raise healthy happy children full of confidence and hope

"But in today's individualistic societies, selfish adults are putting their own needs ahead of the rights of the child," she says.

Dr Somerville is particularly concerned at the increasing use of human reproductive and genetic technologies by same sex couples.

Human reproductive technologies are a $60 billion business with same sex married couples or same sex partners now among the biggest users. Not only are they turning to reproductive technologies and surrogates to provide themselves with a family, but some are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent anyone knowing the identity of the biological parent of the child - either as the sperm donor or as a surrogate - and coming forward at a later time to claim the child as their own. 

"There was a case in the US where two Australian gay men bought an ovum from one woman and had this implanted into a different woman who carried the baby to term as a surrogate. The men took the child home with them to Australia and admitted to using different women for the ovum and surrogate to prevent any woman claiming she was the mother of 'their' child," Dr Somerville says.

She is troubled women, particularly the poor, are being exploited and points out that the majority of those who put themselves at substantial risk of donating an ovum or by agreeing to become a surrogate are those either living in poverty or on extremely low incomes.

Another alarming outcome of human reproductive technologies being used by same sex couples was highlighted recently in Canada when a judge in Ontario ruled that a child could legally have three parents, which in this particular case were the lesbian biological mother, the mother's lesbian partner and the homosexual male who donated the sperm.

Children with two or more biological mothers are also tipped to soon become a reality with Britain's Parliament voting in February this year to allow the creation of babies using the DNA from two women and one man. Although the technique has been developed to prevent a genetic disease being passed from mother to child, Dr Somerville has little doubt it will become more widely used, and constitute a further step towards creating "designer babies."

"The primary focus should always be on the child and what is in the child's best interests. But instead what has happened with reproductive technology is that the primary focus is on the adult and their wishes with the child coming in a poor second or being not considered at all," she says.

Children born from the original IVF programs carried out at Monash University in the 1980s when Australia led the world in this technology have been in constant touch with Dr Somerville over the past decade. Calling themselves "donor-conceived adults" or "genetic orphans" they have established a website called Tangled Web and lobby to prevent children being brought into the world in ways that deprive them of certain rights.

Every child has the right to be born to a mother and a father and to be raised by them as a family

"Those rights are first and foremost the right to know who their biological parents are. They also have a right to a mother and a father and to be reared in their own biological family, both their immediate and extended one," Dr Somerville says and asks what the ethical justification is for deliberately creating a child, knowing the child is going to have a problem that needs counselling in the future.

For more than 30 years, adopted children have been able to search through state birth records to track down their biological parents. No matter how happy these children may be in their adoptive families, by the time they reach their late teens or early 20s it is a natural and a fundamental instinct to want to know who their biological parents are, and where they came from.

But as "genetic orphans" this is not possible, says Dr Somerville.

"A child has a right not to be created from genetic patrimony of two men or two women, or by cloning or from multiple genetic parents," she argues and sayswhile we should recognise same sex relationships, this does not mean we should recognise these relationships as marriage.

"Bringing children into a same-sex relationship should not be seen as the norm but rather as an exception to it," she says and firmly believes that the joint reproductive incapacity of a same sex couples should not be addressed through reproductive technologies.

Dr Somerville also counters the claim frequently made by proponents of same sex-marriage that parenting is gender neutral, and that there is no difference between a father and a mother, two mothers or two fathers.

"Countless studies have shown this is not the case, and that a mother parents very differently from a father, and that a child needs both," Dr Somerville says.

According to Dr Somerville, opposing same sex marriage on the basis that it involves recognising a homosexual relationship is not valid, "But opposition based on such recognition necessarily destroying the essence of marriage is valid'" she says

Although it is difficult to know if Federal Parliament will alter Australia's Marriage Act 1961 which defines marriage as a "union between a man or a woman to the exclusion of all others" will redefine marriage simply as "the union between two people," she is convinced we are not only undermining the millennia-old societal institution of marriage, but undermining society itself.

Dr Somerville admits she is deeply disturbed by the erosion of society's long-held values and moral views. "For thousands of years we have held on to the trust that we must not intentionally kill each other, and then at the beginning of this century we throw that out and say 'what we were talking about?' and pass laws to allow mercy killing, which has nothing to do with mercy," she says.

Same sex marriage has been legal in Canada for 10 years

A long time ago she recalls seeing a cartoon with a line up of birds perched on a telephone wire. All but one faced looking out of the page while only the back of the lone bird facing in the opposite direction could be seen.

"I know how the bird facing the opposite way feels," she says adding that this is the reason she has called her latest book, due out in November: "Bird on the Ethics Wire."

Published by McGill Queen's University Press, Dr Somerville explores the values needed to maintain a world that reasonable people would want to live in and pass on to their descendants. In the book, which has already received strong advance reviews, she address conflicts between people who espouse "progressive values" and those who uphold "traditional" ones and shows how words are often used as weapons.

She also proposes we should seek amazement, wonder and awe which she believes is oxygen of the human spirit and without which our spirit dies.