Demographic winter heralds same-sex marriage spring

Giv Jim Douglas AP Photo/Toby TalbotI would not like to be the governor of Vermont right now. But I must say the man who has the job is showing a lot of backbone in the face of a legislature on the brink of legalizing same-sex marriage. Vermont has had civil unions since 2000. This legal status for same sex couples is now deemed to be inadequate, which supposedly accounts for the decline in the number of civil unions. In 2001, the state granted 1,876 civil unions, compared with only 262 last year. The Vermont Senate has already approved the Freedom to Marry bill and Democrats in the House say they will vote for it on Friday. But Gov Jim Douglas says he will veto the measure if passed.

The gay rights movement has targeted New England for their “6 by 12” strategy of having same sex marriage in all six of the New England states by 2012. This strategy makes sense from their point of view. They already have same sex marriage in Massachusetts and Connecticut, by judicial fiat. In addition, New England is less religious than the rest of the country. And this is a region which has already given up on having babies as a viable way to create a future.

A priest from Vermont recently told me what it is like to minister in one of the least religious states in America. It has one of the highest proportions of the population who consider themselves “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, at 26 per cent, compared with 16 per cent of the US population. Only 23 per cent of the Vermont population attends church services at least once a week, compared with 39 per cent of the general US population. The priest has had one wedding in the past year, and that was a couple in their fifties. He has perhaps one or two baptisms per year. It sounded rather grim, and a lot like Europe.

About the same time I happened to be reading P.D. James’ chilling novel, The Children of Men. That dystopian novel imagines what the world would be like if the entire human race became sterile. Since no one can have kids, marriage doesn’t mean much. Women lavish attention on child substitutes: they have elaborate christenings for cats and drive dolls around in baby carriages. Since no young people come into being, nothing new and energetic can really happen. People lose hope and reason for living as they age. With the exception of the cat christenings, it sounded a lot like the priest’s description of Vermont.

So this got me to thinking: what is Vermont’s demographic situation? Are they reproducing themselves?

Vermont has the lowest total fertility rate of any state in the union: 1.66 babies per woman. (Note: you have to click on the link for the excel file to see the birth rates.) While you’re looking at the table, please notice that the six New England states, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, are in the “top ten” of the lowest total fertility rate states in the country. Not surprisingly, Vermont has a low population growth rate compared with the rest of the country: Vermont’s population grew 2 per cent between 2000 and 2007, while the entire country grew by 7.2 per cent over the same period.

None of these states are replacing themselves with births. All of them have net out-migration: more people left between 2006 and 2007 than moved into the New England states. See pages 5 and 6 here.

Taking this demographic malaise together with the general low religious practice, the whole region is a sitting duck for the further de-construction of marriage. And make no mistake: instituting same sex marriage amounts to the de-construction of marriage.

Natural, man woman marriage attaches fathers to their children, and mothers and fathers to each other. Redefining marriage from the union of a man and a woman to the union of any two persons jettisons three important principles: first, the principle that children are entitled to a relationship with both parents, second, the biological principle for determining parentage, and third, the principle that the state recognizes parentage, but does not assign it. Regular religious practice seems to inoculate people from believing that these principles are unimportant.

Sometimes the arguments over same sex marriage degenerate into an argument over cause and effect. Advocates of same sex marriage argue that there is no real connection between that legal change and changes in other aspects of marriage, at least not when looking at measurable demographic indicators like non-marital child-bearing. But that is not what I am suggesting here.

My point here is that people who have already excused themselves from reproducing do not see any particular problem in redefining marriage. The people who have given up on reproducing don’t mind uncoupling marriage from concern about children. And if religious people are the only ones who can muster the hope in the future necessary to shoulder the effort of raising children, so much the worse for the non-religious.

But the fact that the aging solons of New England have given up doesn’t mean that the rest of us ought to. The people of Vermont and the rest of New England are not going to surrender this territory without putting up a good fight. Letters and emails are pouring into Governor Jim Douglas’ office. The principle that kids need mothers and fathers is worth fighting for.

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, a non-profit dedicated to promoting lifelong married love to the young by creating an intellectual and social climate favorable to marriage.


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