LEADING Catholic bioethicist Margaret Somerville is familiar with the jibes and attacks that accompany a national debate about same-sex marriage.
About 15 years ago, the now Sydney-based Notre Dame University professor of bioethics lived through heated ideological battles as Canada edged towards same-sex marriage laws.
Canada progressively introduced legislation in several provinces by court decisions beginning in 2003 before legally recognising same-sex marriage nationwide with the enactment of the Civil Marriage Act on July 20, 2005.
Prof Somerville, who was director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Toronto, recalled the reaction to one article she wrote for Canada’s online Globe and Mail in which she argued for children’s rights in the same-sex debate – the importance of children’s biological ties to their parents, and doing the least possible damage to these.
“This was extremely unpopular with same-sex marriage supporters, who believe that what constitutes a family is simply a matter of adults’ personal preferences,” she said.
“Here’s one response to that article: ‘Any chance that Dr Somerville is a Catholic? If so, she should at least state it in her opinion pieces and not hide behind her ivory tower’,” South Australian-raised Prof Somerville said.
“For the record, my family is Roman Catholic – although, when I was young, my father was a card-carrying atheist-communist, who refused to set foot in a church – and I was educated in Roman Catholic schools, for which I am deeply grateful.”
As Australia heads towards a postal vote on same-sex marriage, Prof Somerville finds herself once again talking about children’s rights.
“If same-sex marriage involved only adults we should all agree with legalising it,” she said. “Its advocates are correct that it would send a powerful message from society as a whole that discrimination against homosexual people and ill-treatment of LGBTQI persons or a failure to respect them is abhorrent.
“But marriage doesn’t involve just adults, it also involves – and arguably primarily – children.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines marriage as a compound right – men and women ‘have the right to marry and to found a family’.
“The ‘right to found a family’ makes marriage the societal institution that recognises and establishes children’s rights with respect to their parents and the family structure in which they are reared.
“If we believe that children have a right to a mother and a father, preferably their own biological parents, and, if at all possible, to be reared by them, then we cannot support same-sex marriage because it abolishes this right.”
Various politicians, amongst them federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, have argued that same-sex marriage was needed to benefit children in households headed by same-sex couples.
Prof Somerville (pictured) welcomes those politicians’ concerned for what was best for children.
“But avoiding harm to the rights of children in general that changing the traditional, opposite-sex-partners definition of marriage would entail, outweighs the claims of children in households headed by same-sex couples,” she said.
“The LGBTQI lobby has promoted its case largely through ‘no difference’ arguments: There is no difference between a man and a woman – ‘gender neutrality’; there’s no difference between an opposite-sex couple and a same-sex one because in both cases love is the couple’s bond and marriage is just a public recognition of that love; there is no difference between a child having a mother and a father and having two mothers or two fathers, again, because love is all that counts.
“Without question, love is important for children, but we are learning that other factors, such as complementarity in parenting between a mother and a father, are also important, even possibly because of epigenetic effects – different genes are activated (imprinted) by the different parenting behaviour of a man compared with a woman.
“All children, including those who will be homosexual, need both a mother and a father.”
Prof Somerville also questioned what the future might hold.
“New reproductive science has already created mouse pups with the genetic inheritance of two male mice or two female mice,” she said.
“Renowned Australian embryologist and stem-cell scientist Professor Alan Trounson once told me, if we wanted to know what was coming down the track with assisted reproduction technologies for humans, ‘look at what is happening now in animals and that’s what we will be able to do in humans seven years into the future’. His prediction has proven largely true.
“If this happens, would prohibiting creating babies between two married men or two married women also be a breach of their right to found a family?”
Prof Somerville said deciding whether to legalise same-sex marriage involved dealing with a clash between adults’ claims and children’s needs and rights.
“In such cases, a truly humane ethics requires choosing in favour of the weakest, most in need, most vulnerable persons.
“Clearly children belong to this category and they need marriage to remain the union of one man and one woman.
“It’s argued that children in same-sex households also need married parents, but that is not possible if the rights of children, in general, with respect to their parents and family structure are to be upheld.
“People who respect LGBTQI people and their relationships and strongly oppose discrimination against them can also oppose same-sex marriage for reasons, such as I’ve outlined, that are not homophobic or bigoted.
“People who support same-sex marriage, which seems to be most of the Australian media, need to recognise that there are valid arguments on both sides of the issue.
“If they do, the debate on whether to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia, whatever form it takes, will not be divisive and destructive as is feared by some people.”