The Right to Polygamy?

That legalization of or especially creating a constitutional right to same-sex marriage will lead to a constitutional right to polygamy is a favorite “scare tactic” of social conservatives.  But Slate's Jillian Keenan argues, with a good deal of sense, that nobody should be afraid of legalized polygamy:


All marriages deserve access to the support and resources they need to build happy, healthy lives, regardless of how many partners are involved. Arguments about whether a woman’s consensual sexual and romantic choices are “healthy” should have no bearing on the legal process. And while polygamy remains illegal, women who choose this lifestyle don’t have access to the protections and benefits that legal marriage provides.

As a feminist, it’s easy and intuitive to support women who choose education, independence, and careers. It’s not as intuitive to support women who choose values and lifestyles that seem outdated or even sexist, but those women deserve our respect just as much as any others. It’s condescending, not supportive, to minimize them as mere “victims” without considering the possibility that some of them have simply made a different choice.

The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States—and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet.

Here are the key points:

Most of the pathologies we currently associate with polygamy come from polygamists operating in secret and outside the law.  If polygamy were legal, it would be far easier to deal with the various forms of abuse.

Legal polygamy would make it clear that, like any other human relationship, it must be consensual.  That means, of course, no child brides and all that.

Many polygamists live decent and responsible lives.  They should have equal access to the various social services and other resources that support families.

The Supreme Court has said that women have the right to define their own identities, the mystery of their own existences.  The same, of course, goes for gays.  Respect for the relational choice of polygamy is part of the autonomy protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s “condescending, not supportive” to think of women who choose polygamy as “victims.” We should regard their choice as “different”—and not inferior.  It’s not a violation of anyone’s rights. Polygamists so far—being mainly dissident Mormons—are social conservatives who raise their children with traditional values.  But polygamists wouldn’t necessarily stay that way, and people have the right to raise their children as they please.  Polygamy (and polyandry) might be really compatible with a kind a feminist personal independence.  And studies show that children are happier who are raised in large families with the presence of lots of caring adults.

We think marriage is “plastic.”  It evolves.  It evolves, as our Court says, in the direction of liberty.  Our opposition to polygamy isn’t “necessary and proper,” but a Christian prejudice.  Declaring the choice of polygamy as a constitutional right would be very hard on the Mormons, but that’s their (religious) problem.

Our understanding of “equality” leads in the direction of inclusiveness.  Isn’t this the next step in “marriage equality?”  The takeaway:  Don’t be scared into dissing polygamists just to humor social conservatives.  Legalized polygamy won’t be any big deal, and it won’t weaken anyone else’s marriage. 

I don’t mean this to be ironic in some “modest proposal” sense.  For one thing, it’s not my proposal.  I do mean it to be a kind of thought experiment about the evolving American idea of liberty.

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