Near the end of his anti-gay marriage article in today’s Age, Ted Lapkin does get to some substantive reasons why he thinks gay marriage is a bad idea. But much of the article is devoted to the slippery slope argument that once we have gay marriage we will slide into things we really don’t like, such as legal recognition of polygamy and decriminalising incest.
I don’t disagree with Lapkin that issues can develop their own logics, and that one change can make another change more likely. I think we are now nearing the base of a moderately slippery slope on gay issues. Once the state gave up on the idea of actively persecuting gay people for acting on their sexual desires, it became harder and harder to defend all the other ways in which the law disadvantaged them.
Lapkin himself says that everyone, gay or straight, is entitled to identical protections from the law – something that few conservative defenders of the family would have said until quite recently. Once you are sliding on the slippery slope, it can be hard to stop. The last conservative stand on gay issues at the Marriage Act is no more likely to succeed in the end than any of the other battles along the way.
The question then is not whether slippery slopes exist, but whether you can slide from one slope to another in any kind of deterministic fashion (“The floodgates will inevitably open to a further slide down the slippery slope of social disintegration”.)
As a matter of pure policy logic, there is something to be said for extending legal recognition to marriage-like relationships involving more than two people. Indeed, this has already happened at least for the purposes of relationship breakdown, with foreign polygamous marriages recognised in the law and mistresses able to make claims. The public policy rationale is protecting the interests of weaker parties when relationships come apart.
I may have my divorce law wrong, but my understanding is that the extension of these laws to gay couples occurred after they were already in place for heterosexual couples – so in this case if the slope was slippery it was from straight to gay.
On the other hand, there are public policy reasons for discouraging polygamy that don’t exist for gay marriage. Letting the most powerful/rich/attractive people (usually men) take multiple legal partners while others miss out isn’t good for those who end up single as a result. But with gay marriage it’s hard to see how anyone else is worse off.
With incest, there are also clear public policy arguments that do not apply to gay marriage, such as the much higher prevalence of birth defects when closely related people have children.
So I don’t think the logic is likely to flow in the way that Lapkin thinks. Even if gay marriage signals a more liberal view of what relationships should be recognised by the state, there are obstacles on the slope for polygamy and incest that aren’t there for gay marriage.
More important than pure logic is political momentum. Legal changes like this don’t just happen because lawmakers can see an analogy; they are fought for by people who think they are a good idea, and lawmakers tend to get dragged along. Many people are calling for gay marriage, but the constituency for polygamy remains confined to some religious groups who rarely bother making their case in public. The constituency for incest is non-existent as far as I can tell.
Though Lapkin seems to think that Adam Bandt’s gay marriage logic leads him to polygamy as well, I would think the opposite. The ‘progressives’ who support gay marriage aren’t going to a lift a finger for Muslims and Mormons who want multiple wives. And for good reason, from their perspective: gay marriage advances equality, while polygamy sets it back.
Gay marriage, polygamy and incest laws are all about what constitutes a family, but they each have their own policy and political logics. They are different slopes, and a slide down one will not lead to a slide down either of the other two.