Thursday, March 02, 2006

Family Matters

I'm an information junkie - the kind of person who, when lookinq at USA Today, checks the "States" news page to read about every state I've ever lived in, and every adjacent state, and .... So, it won't surprise anyone that my background noise of choice is news.

Today two news stories caught my attention. The first you can read about here. I first saw it on The Today Show. In summary, it tells of eleven women, all of whom bore children from the same anonymous sperm donor. They have sought each other out so that the children might their half-siblings. One woman even donated a sperm sample to another so that the second woman's second child might have the same father as her first.

The second story you can read about here. I first heard about it on NPR's Day to Day. It tells of a meeting in Salt Lake City on the subject of polygamy. The meeting included practicing polygamists, those who had left polygamist groups, and legal, political, and social service professionals. One voice advocated decriminalizing polyqamy. Another suggested it "isn't necessarily harmful."

This must be an awful news day for those committed to a specific and narrow of “traditional marriage” or “traditional family.” In the civic discussions (I started to write “civil,” but they rarely are) of equal relationship rights for LGBT citizens, we are told that it would be a “slippery slope:” “If we allow them these rights, are there any relationships that will not qualify for these rights?”

What are we to do in these cases? Polygamy has scriptural tradition, if not scriptural warrant (sing to the tune of “Give Me That Old Time Religion:” “It was good for Abe and Jacob, and it’s good enough for me!”). And how shall we classify the relationships of these eleven women and their children? Genetically these children are half-siblings; and their mothers are apparently interested enough in relationships to bring them together. How different is it from polygamy for one woman to give a sperm sample to another?

And so today is also an interesting news day for those of us who want to see a broad understanding of how a family may be structured. If we are not to cede the ground in these arguments to those who want a narrow view of a “traditional” family, we need to engage in these discussions of how we will understand families. I am not persuaded by the “slippery slope” argument. That does not mean that there are no standards. It means that there are no simplistic standards. It means that we must be engaged in the hard intellectual and moral work of determining what values and characteristics identify healthy families, in earnest and in public. And it has to have as much to do with values as it does with structures. After all, there seems more effort at “family” among those eleven women than in the descriptions of some polygamist groups that, for all their Biblical models and religious fervor, exploit young women and social programs for the apparent benefit of a few men.

And our sociological and technological changes can make this difficult. Changes come at us fast and furious, and even those few of us who notice can hardly find time to reflect. We may have been thinking about polygamy for generations. We may just be beginning to see the variations in our understanding of “family” that may rise from reproductive technology.

So, what shall we do with these items, and all the other issues of “family” that will be in the news today? I don’t know for sure; but I know that we must at least pay attention.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Trouble with polygamy is not that one man gets to sleep with many women, as one could think from listening to the moralists, but that men (plural) have legal and economic powers in society that women do not.

That men have power over women.

Moreover, polygamy is the only ethical matter where the Church has had anything approaching a consistent stand over the ages ;=)

So I would say it's off, permanently.

Marshall Scott said...

I wonder if it would make a difference for the discussion if our discussion of polygamy was polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) rather than polygyny (the specific term of one man with multiple wives). Just as those who are most vocal about their opposition to homosexuality seem focused on two men and not on two women, perhaps polyandry is just not thought of. On the other hand, there are some cultures where it has been practiced.