All families matter - but marriage still deserves special protection

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The single parent support and campaign group, One Family, have released a new video called “All Families Matter.”

Produced as part of their campaign to change the constitutional definition of the family, the video is pretty striking. It shows a single mother and her two children being denied a family ticket to the cinema because there's no father present; an unmarried couple with their children being refused a family suite at a hotel; anda gay couple and their daughter being denied access to a family movie on television.lone%20father.jpg

“Irish families come in all shapes and sizes” reads the text on the screen as the video concludes “Let's bring the Constitution up to date. All Families Matter”.

One Family are of course making heavy – and very effective – use of poetic license in order to make a point. But what struck me watching the video was that they chose not to point to any concrete instances of legal discrimination that non-traditional families face in today's Ireland. The fact that they chose to use such fantastical examples is telling.

We have a society where stigma for single parents or cohabitees is vanishingly rare, a social welfare code that penalises people for getting married, and an upcoming family law bill that aims to remove even more of the special status that exists in law for marriage

The question is: do we think there's anything unique, anything special, about the married family? Do we think that having a mother and a father who are publicly and legally committed to each other through marriage is a good thing for child welfare on average?

What “All Families Matter” implicitly states is that we don't - that the married family is just another choice among many. It reflects an understandable but frustrating attitude very common in Irish society – that to praise something as an ideal is automatically to denigrate every alternative.

I know - we all know - children being raised in all sorts of non-traditional families. Single parents and cohabitees often do a brilliant job of parenting.

But it does seem to be an inconvenient truth that marriage is, as Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Geoffrey Shannon puts it “the gold standard” in terms of child welfare in the aggregate, research seems to bear this out. From a 2012 report by Child Trends:

Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.

Now, if this is true – and I don't see One Family disputing it – then any government making social policy with child welfare in mind should have two goals. They'd have to make sure children in non-traditional families were protected. But they'd also be obliged to try to incentivise and promote the kind of structure that leads – in the aggregate – to the best outcomes for children. The Irish system, with statutory protection for diverse family forms and constitutional status for the married family, is a good way of squaring this circle.

Of course all families matter. Of course all families should be supported. But that doesn't mean we have to give up on the notion of marriage as the gold standard.

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