In person, Margaret Somerville seems like one of those professors you were pleased to have as an undergraduate student. Open to insubordinate questions, she is warm, but firm in her positions. The Australian-born McGill professor is certainly knowledgeable, and has a pair of impressive titles to reflect her pedigree: the Samuel Gale professor of law and professor of medicine at McGill’s Centre For Medicine, Ethics And Law.
What may be off-putting to some in the queer community are Somerville’s adamant and repeated attacks on the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Doing so, she has written in a broad range of publications, is “symbolically wrong,” as marriage is an institution that is normally reserved for procreation and, as she points out, two people of the same sex cannot biologically procreate. This is not the first debate Somerville has stepped into: she has spoken out against circumcision and has just published a piece about the ethics of bioterrorism.
Somerville has become a potent weapon in the battle against legal recognition of same-sex marriages, in large part because she does not fit the stereotype. She does not chew tobacco. She does not look like Ralph Klein. She doesn’t quote religious texts. And that, in turn, makes her all the more attractive as an op-ed writer for places like the National Post.
Somerville argues that to be opposed to same-sex marriage does not mean someone is bigoted and insists that some of her best friends are gay. When you speak with Somerville, you get the sense that she’s not a raging homophobe, but rather someone who believes that legally recognizing gay marriage is a bad idea – even if much of what she says sounds objectionable.
First question: You say you’re no homophobe, but isn’t your pos-ition essentially discriminatory?
“I don’t think it is. I think it’s absolutely wrong to discriminate against gays, but I don’t think this should be regarded as discrimination. I do think their relationships should be treated differently, as there are reasons for not making it marriage. If marriage were simply public recognition of two people’s love and commitment to each other, then I think they should be able to get married. That’s the element where they’re the same. But if you say that marriage is about children, then I think you have to set these things apart. It can’t be about children in the same way. It mucks up the rights of children.”
This forms the crux of Somerville’s argument: that in the gay and lesbian rush to the altar, the rights of children have been left out. Yes, she agrees that gay and lesbian people can make wonderful parents, but that’s not her point. Children have a right to be born into ideal parenting situations, and the ideal, she argues, must be supported by government and reflected in law. Pointing to research that suggests that adopted children will ultimately yearn to find out who their biological parents are, Somerville suggests that the ideal is mother and father with homegrown, biological offspring. Though there are exceptions to this rule that can work, Somerville insists that the law must reflect what society can agree is ideal for children. That ideal, she’s decided, is the nuclear heterosexual family “norm.”
Why is same-sex marriage being blamed for the slipping fortunes of the institution of marriage? Hasn’t procreation already been divorced from marriage, given that some hetero-sexuals marry with no intention of having children and, conversely, so many have children without getting married?
“That’s not the point. The argument there would be that society doesn’t need an institution that connects biological children with their biological parents. Now if you say that you don’t need an institution that does that, that means you don’t have marriage. But if you say, as I do, that society does need an institution, one that has gone on for a very long time, that’s gone on through many cultures and traditions, if we do away with that, that’s a very huge change. It’s still a matter of what the norm is: in Canada, you’ll find most people are married when they have kids.”
Children of divorce sometimes suffer. If the law must reflect the ideal for children’s upbringing, would you advocate making divorce illegal?
“No, no, no. Think about it: the law says we don’t kill each other, but murder still occurs. Why do we want a law against murder? Because we hope that we might prevent it, and because we want to create an ideal within society, and we want to pass that value from generation to generation. People don’t get married in the hope of getting a divorce. It’s not the ideal, it’s just something we’ve come to accommodate.”
Does she see any value in two couples, one gay, one lesbian, parenting together? Yes, indeed, that might work – at least the children would know where they come from.
Doesn’t opposition to this just stem from anxiety around progressive social change, like all the editorials that opposed women getting the vote? That was purely social change, she counters, while gay marriage involves challenging a social construct around a biological reality.
Somerville concedes that some of her concern has been inspired by massive advances in reproductive technology: test-tube babies, in vitro fertilization, sperm banks and now, of course, the prospect of cloning. These advances remove children from Somerville’s ideal of being brought up by their biological parents.
Since thousands of same-sex couples have already tied the knot in Canada, what should be done about their marriage licences, now that they’ve already been issued?
“They would become civil unions, not marriages.”
You mean taking away their marriages?
“I’ve just said I don’t support gay marriage, so you can’t expect me to say that and then say I support anyone who got under the wire. There’s nothing wrong with using the notwithstanding clause. It’s a complete misinterpretation of the constitution to say we can’t do it. Yes, it’s a new thing, but so is the Charter Of Human Rights And Freedoms. There’s all this hysteria around using the notwithstanding clause. The government has every right to use it.”