I wanted to tie yesterday’s post back to an earlier one that was also about “natural” parents. I’m spurred to do this by the hearings on allowing same-sex couple to marry that have recently occurred in both New Hampshire and Maine. (I won’t link to them here, but you can find tons of stuff on the web.)
In the course of these debates, there’s a lot of discussion about what the purpose of state-sanctioned (as opposed to religious) marriage is. If marriage is an expression of love and commitment between two people, then it is difficult to justify the exclusion of loving and committed same-sex couples.
One general argument against allowing same-sex couples access to marriage goes something like this: The main purpose of marriage is to ensure the propagation of the species and the continuation of society. If this is so, then it “naturally” follows that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, because only a man and a woman can “naturally” reproduce (i.e. without assistance from others). Further, only these “natural” parents can properly raise up the children to be good citizens of the land. And certainly a child can only have two parents–it’s just in the nature of things.
I guess the point I want to make here is that starting from a simple observation about biology (humans reproduce sexually using genetic material from one man and one woman) you can construct an entire social structure (here a society based on male/female marriage and child-rearing) and assert the whole thing is simply “natural.”
In our day and age, for many people “natural” is synonymous with “good.” One has only to look at the panoply of advertising touting “all-natural” products to see this. All-natural yogurt is good. And a married man and a woman and their biologically related kids–is the “all-natural” family and hence, unquestionably good.
Consider, too, where the language of nature leaves other families–be the lesbian/gay, single parent, adoptive, or whatever. These families must be “unnatural.” (This is especially true of those families that violate gender norms, and in this category I’d put lesbian/gay and single parent families. ) No one could mistake “unnatural” for good. (I suppose one might also call them “artificial” families, as artificial is the opposite of natural when you are in the grocery store. But I haven’t seen that usage.)
All of this leaves me very wary of the use of “natural” terminology in the context of parenthood and families. That’s part of why the Anna Quindlan essay I blogged about yesterday caught my eye. It isn’t so much the descriptor “natural” that bothers me as it is all the superstructure that has been built upon it.
Finally, it’s worth nothing that we all know that natural isn’t always synonymous with good. Tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes are all natural. Countless millions have died of naturally occurring diseases and infections. Humankind has spent endless time and energy working to mitigate the effects of nature, and many of us probably owe our survival to these efforts.