by Karen Bennett
What’s in a name? A lot, judging from all the furor raised by California’s Proposition 8, which would constitutionally define “marriage” exclusively as a relationship between a man and a woman. Why is that historic definition worth preserving? The answer is simple. It takes a man and a woman to create a child. When a man and a woman vow before their communities and governments to commit their lives to each other and to the children they may create, we call it a “marriage.” It makes both legal and linguistic sense to have a term reserved for describing the uniqueness of this type of union.
Couples who create children provide the lifeblood that guarantees the continuation of a society. Through laws governing their unions, societies worldwide invest in the future by encouraging men and women to form stable homes where they jointly care for the children they create. These laws acknowledge the time-tested fact that the upcoming generation prospers best when children are provided for by the fathers and mothers who gave them life. Laws holding individual couples legally responsible for the children they produce also prevent that responsibility from falling to government. Reserving a specific legal name (“marriage”) for heterosexual unions recognizes their unique reproductive capabilities and communicates the duty fathers and mothers have to the posterity they create.
Can same-sex couples love each other and even love a child? Undoubtedly. However, left to their own devices, they cannot independently create life no matter how much they profess to care for one another. While homosexual and heterosexual love may have corresponding value to the individuals involved, the potential for bringing a child into the world through the expression of that love is simply not the same. Legally, calling same-sex relationships “marriages” implies that the reproductive capability of heterosexual unions is no longer significant to public discourse, a concept that is clearly not the case. Linguistically, changing the age-old meaning of the word weakens the term’s descriptive power, reducing it to a mere connotation for any amorous relationship between two human parties who have chosen to make a governmentally supervised commitment to each other.
We have different words to name different things for the express purpose of communicating their uniqueness. Even simple differences between like items are acknowledged by differing terms. The petals of a sunflower and a daisy have similar shapes but only one of these two flowers produces edible seeds. If we decide to call both types of blossoms “sunflowers,” how will we know if the package of seeds we purchase and plant will provide us nourishment? The future use of the term “marriage” is much more significant than the naming of flowers. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but “marriage” by any other definition would be diminished. The inherent ability of heterosexual unions to create children significantly distinguishes them from same-sex partnerships. To legally acknowledge and linguistically preserve this crucial difference, the term “marriage” should retain its traditional definition as a union between a man and a woman. A “yes” vote on Proposition 8 would do just that.
Karen Bennett is raising her children in California. She is an active community volunteer and a former legislative analyst.