The institution of marriage, the union of a man and a woman brings immense benefits to them, their children and society across the generations. It has the support of most Australians and, I believe, most parliamentarians.
These advantages stand out more clearly when marriages fail, and when other approaches are followed. Our parliaments should act to preserve these benefits and not allow the legal defences of traditional marriages to be whittled away by activist judges or international arrangements.
Federal government moves to legislate to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples are a worthwhile reinforcement of traditional marriage as the basic building block of society. Promoting so-called “gay marriage” through legal endorsement by the state would weaken significantly the place of traditional marriage and bring with it instability and further confusion.
The benefits and advantages of traditional marriage are not a matter of interpretation, opinion or religious belief. They are matters of hard fact, as evidenced by decades of international research. Allowing for differentials, the research shows that traditional marriage:
- generally makes for a higher quality of relationship between a couple, including significantly higher levels of sexual satisfaction and fidelity;
- doubles the likelihood of children growing up with both of their natural parents and building strong relationships with them;
- reduces the risk of early sexual activity for adolescents, and teenage pregnancy for girls;
- increases the chances of children in their turn avoiding divorce and cohabitation and making happy and long-lasting marriages themselves;
- increases the chances of families avoiding poverty and building greater wealth;
- increases the likelihood that children will complete schooling, obtain post-school qualifications, achieve higher-status jobs, and avoid poverty;
- generally ensures better physical and mental health for husband, wife and children, including in particular significantly lower risks of infant mortality, substance abuse, depression and suicide — some studies suggest there may be a link between rising suicide rates for young men and declining marriage rates;
- provides longer life-expectancy and lower rates of illness, injury and disability for both men and women;
- provides the best school for values and reduces the chances of children getting into crime, and of adults being either the victims or perpetrators of crime;
- reduces the risk of domestic violence for women, compared to women who date or cohabit — and also for men; and
- provides a significantly lower danger of child abuse and murder.
Unsurprisingly, most of the benefits of marriage correlate with the quality of the union. The benefits for physical health and well-being in particular can be significantly diminished where the level of intimacy between spouses is low, and, sadly, become seriously negative in cases of betrayal, emotional abuse and violence.
Overall, however, marriage brings a strong positive, not just for the individuals involved but for society as well. Apart from the greater chance of happiness marriage brings to parents and children, it helps to reduce social problems, especially among the young, and so the need for welfare, health, police and prison services.
This is not to condemn devoted parents in situations other than marriage, such as single parents, and de facto couples. But the reality is that on average, married couples and children – and society – do better.
This is particularly so for children. Children need many things, and love is undoubtedly most important. Another requirement is stability. Successful single, cohabiting and traditional parents are successful precisely when they manage to provide stability for their children and themselves.
While it is true that children can do well in single-parent, de facto and polygamous families, the best odds for them doing well come from families based on the marriage of their natural parents. This is why government should support traditional marriage over other types of relationship, and protect it from being undermined by measures such as same-sex marriage.
Allowing same-sex couples to marry will worsen the situation of the family in Australia, not help it. It would erode traditional marriage as the norm for most men and women and raise difficult dilemmas in relation to issues like the adoption of children.
The benefits of marriage do not come just from a civic endorsement of a couple’s relationship. They are unique to the particular form of commitment, friendship and co-operation that exists between a married man and woman who either are or wish to be parents. Children have a right to a mother and father.
Marriage is in decline, not least because the contraceptive revolution of the 1960s and the abortion revolution of the 1970s brought about a sharp separation of sex from parenthood, sometimes even from love itself.
Society must protect its long-term interests and look to the future. Governments should be protecting and encouraging natural parents to found their families on marriage. It is not discrimination to say that same-sex marriage takes us in the wrong direction.
For the good of all Australians, the government’s amendments to the Marriage Act deserve bi-partisan support.
This is an edited version of an address to the National Family Gathering at St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill on 16 April. It was first published The Australian on 28 April 2004. The full text can be found here.