The ongoing debate in Australia over the access of same-sex couples to social benefits and so-called entitlements is a distraction from the real issue at hand. The real issue is not one concerning any infringement of rights. Rather, it is about what heterosexual marriage can offer society that other forms of relationships cannot.
Married heterosexual unions are not simply a legal invention with an associated bunch of benefits. Committed, enduring heterosexual unions have an intrinsic value which enables them to provide a number of reciprocal benefits to any society. It is the reason why flourishing societies have always acknowledged the importance of marriage and family and accorded it a level of preferential support. It is a vital part of the social estate.
We need to continue to preferentially support a civic institution that encourages authentic and enduring unions
The social benefits of committed, exclusive heterosexual unions include the generation of children and the raising up of future citizens; a supportive and safe environment for the nurturing of these children; two parents who are biologically connected to their child and who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of that child; two complementary parents who can provide appropriate gender role modeling; and an inter-generational connectedness within families and societies where parents are encouraged to save and provide for their children and grandchildren.
Such unions also provide a mechanism for effectively connecting children to their fathers, a longing of every child, and also for ensuring a fairer distribution of the parenting burden. Nation-states have regularly supported exclusive heterosexual unions because as a type, these unions have the capacity to contribute to the society in an essential and substantial way. Children may seem optional for spouses; they are not optional for societies.
Much of the argument about the need for legislative reform also seems predicated on the assumption that any preferential legislative entitlement should somehow be limited to two-person heterosexual or homosexual unions. However, this raises many more questions than it answers and affords a myriad of opportunities for further exploitation.
Some argue that ‘equivalence’ between types of sexually intimate relationships no longer needs to be concerned with the predisposition to procreate and to care for one’s children. This raises the question why such relationships need to be concerned with sexual intimacy at all. Undoubtedly, social activists will soon be seeking to extract government benefits for de facto ‘parent-child’ couples or ‘best friends’ who have no interest in being sexually intimate, or for de facto sibling couples, and also for polygamous and polyamorous relationships involving numerous individuals.
Recent court decisions in Pennsylvania and in Ontario earlier this year have confirmed that children can now have at least three legal ‘parents’ in some Western jurisdictions. Adult wants are being used to trump the rights of children. Although there are undoubtedly some persons who are already involved in such relationships, the law (at least at present in Australia) does not oblige governments to accord them preferential support and relationship ‘benefits’. It is not sexual orientation or even simple co-dependency that forms the basis for according the various forms of social benefits.
Traditional marriage contributes more to society
Rather, the reason why committed and exclusive heterosexual unions have traditionally been given preferential social and legal support is because they have the capacity to contribute to the society in a way that other forms of unions do not.
It is not sufficient to argue that a society should never discriminate for or against a particular group. Societies do so all the time. In Australia, 16-year-olds are not licensed to drive and cannot vote even though there may very well be young persons of that age who would be good drivers and others who would be judicious voters. Even if an individual 16-year-old were to present solid evidence on their own behalf they would not be accorded these privileges.
As a society, we place certain limitations on young persons as a group or type because we feel that as a general principle there are sound reasons for doing so. We also place limits on the level of access of various groups of persons to a variety of social benefits. The decision to limit this access is also for good and sound reasons unrelated to any notion of ‘entitlement’. These reasons usually pertain to either the neediness of discrete groups or the requirement to provide an incentive to particular groups who can produce a social benefit. Two obvious examples in Australia are the tiered family tax benefit and the baby bonus.
The continued provision of preferential support for heterosexual spouses and their children over other types of unions is vital. Otherwise we run the risk of encouraging a view of marriage and family as something which individuals, couples or even groups can alter according to their own subjective desires. This would result in further ongoing clamour for financial benefits from couples or groups on the basis of some notional entitlement. A basket of benefits should continue to be routinely and preferentially available to married heterosexual couples because as a class or type, they have a capacity to make a substantial return to the social estate.
If advocates of other forms of unions feel that they have something similarly substantial to offer society, then they need to make a case for it. If however, they wish to argue their case on some other basis such as neediness, handicap or disadvantage, then this should be clearly stated as the underlying rationale. But the capacity of a particular group to make an equivalent return to the social estate is not something that should simply be presumed as a way of creating a pretext for further access to social benefits.
Some argue that there are instances where certain changes could make it easier for individuals to arrange their own financial affairs as they see fit. However, persons already have the right to transfer finances and property during life and upon their death and also to own property as joint tenants. There is no need to move down the path of providing unimpeded access to a range of benefits to any two or more people who say they are in a relationship.
We need to continue to preferentially support a civic institution that encourages authentic and enduring unions – unions that reflect the complementary nature of men and women, unions that have an openness to life and children, unions that are intrinsically ordered to the care and education of those children and unions which have an intergenerational connectivity that draws them beyond their own immediate needs and wants. In short, we need to support by law and social policy, heterosexual monogamous marriage. Preferential access to a range of social benefits is one way in which that vital support can continue to be realised.
Chris Meney is director of the Marriage and Family Office for the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.