I came across this article about Margaret Somerville, a Canadian ethicist who opposes same-sex marriage (SSM), via Family Scholars Blog. Ms. Somerville is worried “that you will be able to make a baby probably in the future from two ovum, or two sperm”; in her view, admitting that same-sex couples have a right to marry would lead to a right to make a baby from two ovum or sperm. And that would be (she says) bad for children.
As usual, I object to the notion that in order to prevent __________ (whether you fill in the blank with group marriage, incest, or Artificial Reproductive Technology), it is justifiable to punish same-sex couples and their children by denying them equality. I call this line of thinking “queers are condoms.” Margaret Somerville’s argument assumes that queers and their kids, like condoms, are disposable things, useful only for preventing some unwanted outcome. I think that view is objectively less accurate than the view that queers and their kids are people, and their fundamental human rights are not disposable.
What struck me about this article, though, was this stunning piece of bad logic:
Somerville said society is ethically bound to a principle of non-malevolence, or of doing no harm when making such sweeping changes.
The burden of proof that same-sex marriage will not harm the rights of children rests with those making the change, not those who oppose it, she said.
Given her academic background, Ms. Somerville must be aware that it’s logically impossible to prove a negative – such as “same-sex marriage will not harm the rights of children.” I can no more logically prove that than I can logically prove that same-sex marriage will not cause the moon to fall out of its orbit.
If Ms. Somerville’s “principle of non-malevolence” had been applied historically, no advances in civil rights would have happened, ever. It would not have been possible, for example, to prove ahead of time that women’s right to vote wouldn’t “harm the rights of children”; presumably Ms. Somerville, had she been alive at the time, would have opposed suffrage.
It’s also striking, to me, that Ms. Somerville doesn’t call for a balance test; she doesn’t say we should consider the harms done to queers and their children by inequality, compare that to the harms she suspects SSM will cause children, and then choose the lesser harm. I might not agree with that approach, but it would at least show an awareness that queers and their children are human beings, and their rights have some value.
Instead, she says it’s up to advocates of SSM to prove that SSM will cause no harm to children, and if that can’t be proved than SSM isn’t justified. Her logic – at least, as it’s stated in this article – implicitly assumes that any amount of harm to “children” – however slight or inconsequential – automatically outweighs any harms done to queers and their children, however huge and important.