Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Polygamy is a very different matter

An article appearing in the online version of The Globe and Mail talks about gay marriage being used as a legal defence in the BC polygamy trial.

The basics are that a religious cult person by the name of Winston Blackmore is accused of having 19 wives. None of them are minors, but the point is more about whether or not these women really made a choice to be with him in marriage or not. So, in terms of law he broke the Parliament's current version of marriage which is a union between two people whether they be one man and one man, one man and one woman, or between two women, or even between two people with alternative genders. Gender doesn't matter so much now, but the number of people does matter.

Anyway, the Globe article states that experts on both sides of the "gay marriage" debate have anticipated that this could be used as a defence of polygamy. The article cites a political scientist who says that he doesn't think the argument will work as the legal view is that there is a restriction on the number of people who can be married to each other.

I don't really want to defend polygamy but I would like to separate this kind of polygamy from other sorts, just to be fair. Some time ago I watched some program (I think on Oprah) that had several polygamous families speaking about their lives (couldn't find the link, but did find this) The woman and men that Oprah brought on gave a very different impression of what polygamy can be. One of the women said that the current laws were written (in the U.S in this case) to prevent abuse of woman. She argued that the laws are not relevant to the happy union that she has with her husband and with his other wife. She claims it makes all sorts of personal and financial sense as they can share expenses and raise the children together. Also, she said that when she is tired, it's nice to be able to get the other wife to cook and look after their husband.

I don't want to come across as someone trying to push the marriage debate to extremes, but I can see the validity of the argument that these people are making. I can also see that this case in BC is nothing of the sort. What is happening among these extreme religious groups is, in my opinion abusive and I don't think that it should necessarily be put into the same category as what some of the guests on the Oprah show were talking about.

That leaves open the question of how to stop polygamy that is abusive if polygamy itself is legalized. That would be difficult, I think. Perhaps it is better to just leave it illegal but focus police efforts on cases that are believed to be abusive while ignoring situations that show no signs of abuse. Also, there is really nothing stopping three or more people from living together outside of legal marriage.

That argument could also be used against "equal marriage". One could say that "there is nothing stopping two men from living together and living like they are married without actually getting married". My answer to that would be that as a society we give men and women equal legal standing. As such, we have created a legal system where gender does not have much relevance. Therefore, if gender does not have legal relevance than there is no justification for not allowing two people of the same sex to enjoy all of the same legal protections, benefits and duties as those of opposite genders. Society does not view men and woman as being the same, and biologically speaking men and women are clearly different in many ways (not only anatomy), though most of these differences could likely be attributed to environment, some appear to be deeply ingrained (perhaps at the chromosomal level). Those factors though are not very relevant to law, and marriage is a legal matter. Of course there is a religious aspect to marriage, and marriage began as a religious matter (as did science and education), but marriage has long since entered into the world of legal contracts and as such, in our system, it should not be based on gender.

In conclusion, I think we shouldn't adjust polygamy laws unless we can find a way to ensure that we have the tools to deal with abusive religious cults. Also, I think that the "slippery slope" argument is flawed because our legal system doesn't recognize gender differences as being valid reason for discrimination, but does allow discrimination based on other factors. For example, I cannot practice medicine, not because of my sexual preferences, race, religion, language et cetera, but because I am not a medical doctor. I did not go to medical school therefore the state discriminates between myself and someone who is a doctor. The quantity and quality of education is a factor in employment and is entirely legal. I know this sounds so elementary, but I'm trying to get to my point which is that quantity and quality (that is to say the nature of something) are legally relevant. Who a person is is not as relevant as what a person can do. Likewise, contracts between two entities to the exclusion of others are a basic legal concept. Contracts between parties that I am not associated with, by necessity exclude me.

Two put it more simply; two is not one. Two people cannot be re-interpreted as three people. There is no slippery slope toward polygamy. To allow polygamy would be an entirely separate discussion from the one that already occurred (in Canada) regarding "gay/equal marriage". Perhaps that debate will happen at some point, but that in and of itself would require many years of a very different social and legal paradigm from the one that we have now. In our current paradigm, the differences between numbers of parties to a contract are significant...certainly more significant. Not that we do not allow for some personal discrimination based on some matters (such as legal age). I hope that some of this is making sense and that the careful reader can distill (through this very unorganized blog entry) what it is that I'm trying to say.

No comments: