Three and Four Parent Families

Published November 20, 2006

National Review Online

Will same-sex marriage open the door to still more radical redefinitions of the family?  The argument against a “slippery slope” has largely come down to the claim that there is no constituency for family radicalism.  Logically and culturally, the notion that “love makes a family” opens the door to an infinite variety of family forms, polygamy and polyamory included.  Yet consider the massive cultural and political effort that’s been required to bring civil unions to several states, and formal same-sex marriage to Massachusetts.  Now imagine how much more effort it would take to finally secure same-sex marriage in the nation as a whole.  How could a few college professors and radical family activists hope to equal that “mainstream” effort?So goes the argument against a family-structure-slippery-slope.  Yet the argument is flawed.  As I showed in “The Confession,” and “The Confession II,” the core constituency for a radical deconstruction of marriage (polygamy and polyamory included) will be largely the same activist community that is pushing for same-sex marriage right now.  After all, until a moment ago, same-sex marriage was itself considered a radical idea pushed by a bunch of college professors and marginal activists.  That was before gay marriage was taken up as a cause by weighty mainstream institutions like The New York Times.Well, The New York Times has once again placed itself on the cutting edge of family radicalism, with a Sunday magazine cover piece on the three- and four- person extended families created when gay men donate sperm to lesbian couples. (See “Gay Donor or Gay Dad?“) These families are at the center of the radical agenda put forward this past summer in the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” manifesto.  (For more, see my “Confession” articles, linked above.)  It will be next to impossible to recognize such families without also opening up the way for heterosexual polygamy and polyamory, which is exactly why all of these family forms, and more, are on the menu put forward by the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” manifesto.

The New York Times Magazine cover article features commentary by sociologist and radical family activist, Judith Stacey, a signatory of the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” manifesto. (For more on Stacey’s radicalism, see “Zombie Killers.”) I am surprised, frankly, that the radical ideas pushed by the “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage” statement are making it into the mainstream so quickly, just as I was surprised by the advent of HBO’s “Big Love,” prior to the nationalization of same-sex marriage.  The fact that family radicalism has already emerged so clearly is a telling sign of the sort of campaign we’re in for if gay marriage is nationalized.  What was once the province of radical activists and academics is now on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.  The next battle is queued up and ready to go, and clearly the campaign for same-sex marriage has played a huge role in making that possible.

Implicitly and explicitly, the NYT article makes the case for accepting this radical new family form–using arguments we’re familiar with from the battle over same-sex marriage.  These families want the same thing as everyone else, we’re told.  Structural novelty notwithstanding, it’s said that the day-to-day lives of these bold family experimenters are boringly normal.  Yes, we’re told, there are problems and instability, yet the same can be said of conventional families.  And we’re led to believe that many of the problems faced by these unconventional families stem from the lack of role-models and legal safeguards.  That lays the groundwork for a “conservative case” for defining conventional marriage and family out of existence.  Just give us the legal safeguards and social precedents for three- and four-parent arrangements and we can prevent many tragic misunderstandings between potentially warring adults.  With an article like this on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, the “no radical constituency” argument is getting awfully tough to sustain.  Family radicalism is being mainstreamed before our eyes.

(For more on the larger issues raised by triple and quadruple parent families, see “The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs” by Elizabeth Marquart.)

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