Monday, November 3, 2008

What's in a name? Proposition 8 and the definition of marriage: A Planetary Discussion

For those who are getting tired of my posts on proposition 8, I have good news and bad news. The good news: we go to the polls tomorrow, and my posts on this issue will probably largely stop after the election. The bad news? I've got about 36 hours left in which to defend traditional marriage, and I intend to take advantage of it!
I read a blog post yesterday ridiculing anyone who argues that semantics matter in the gay marriage battle. This blogger compared the argument over the definition of marriage to the recent argument over and redefinition of the word planet, claiming that since one didn't really make a difference neither will the other. I frankly thought his argument was a poor one, but we might after all learn something from the effort to define the meaning of the word "planet".
When the International Astronomical Union met in 2006 to reconsider the definition of planet, they were faced with two options: 1) define planet in a way that would include the numerous new pluto-like bodies being discovered in the solar system, greatly expanding the number of named plantes in the solar systerm, or 2) define planet in a way that recognizes the unique characteristics of the 8 major planets and distinguishes them from other orbital bodies in the solar system. Here is the definition they chose:
A planet is a celestial body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, is not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion, and has cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals
Some people have been upset that this definition excludes Pluto, which all of us learned years ago in the last of planets. The truth is, the IAU did not have any particular predjudice against Pluto. However, in the years since Pluto's discovery and inclusion in the list of planets, many more solar bodies of similar size and orbits had been discovered, including one larger than Pluto. These bodies, including Pluto, differed from the other major planets in significant ways. Astronomers were faced with two choices: 1) expand the list of planets to include all of these objects, or 2) refine the definition of the term "planet" to reflect the differences between these orbiting objects and the other planets of the solar system. They chose to refine the definition of a planet to make clear the distinction between the large planets with their unique properties and the smaller celestial bodies which they renamed "dwarf planets". Why make a distinction? Quite simply, because words are more meaningful and more useful when their definition is more precise. This is particularly true in scientific and legal spheres.
Because the major planets and dwarf planets have different characteristics, if both were simply designated as planets a scientists wanting to discuss one or the other would have to specify in some other way what he was talking about, i.e. "the type of planet that is rounded by its own gravity" or "the type of planet that is too small to dominate its orbit". Clearly, carefully defining our terms from the beginning makes those terms more useful. A scientific observation that applied to one group might not apply to the other, and confusion would result.
The application to marriage laws and definitions should be apparent. Limiting the definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman makes the term more specific and therefor more useful. Including relationships that have some marriage-like aspects, such as a same-sex union, muddies the waters, and leaves open to interpretation what marriage really means. Are the differences between a same-sex union and a male/female union significant enough to warrant different names? Absolutely. Yes, there are some similarities: both may be close committed relationships between individuals, both may be sexual and romantic unions. But only the union between and man and a woman includes the potential to produce offspring. My marriage to my husband has produced three children; because their father is married to their mother, these children benefit from close and secure relationships with both of their natural parents, as well as with grandparents and other family members. That situation will never result from the "marriage" of two men or two women.
Is the real difference great enough to warrant semantic and legal differentiation? Absolutely. Will defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as proposition 8 attempts to do, benefit children and society? Unequivicably.
Vote Yes on Proposition 8. It's the right thing to do.


My Blessed Life said...

Let's make sure we all go out and vote. Thank you for your post.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

The IAU, or rather, four percent of its membership, most of whom are not planetary scientists, made the wrong choice regarding Pluto. Dwarf planets are far more akin to major planets than they are to asteroids.

The issue of being rounded or made spherical by its own gravity is far more important than you seem to indicate. Objects that are spherical have achieved hydrostatic equilbrium and are differentiated into core, mantle and crust, just like Earth and the major planets and unlike shapeless, inert asteroids. The IAU definition blurs this distinction by defining objects solely by where they are rather than by what they are. Further, if words are important, which I agree they are, the IAU definition is nonsensical in that it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That's like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear.

Pluto is more similar to the other planets than different. That is why 300 professional astronomers, led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, signed a petition immediately objecting to the IAU definition. A far better definition of planet keeps the term broad to include any object in hydrostatic equilibrium orbiting a star. We can then distinguish between planets through use of subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets, hot Jupiters, super Earths, etc.

You'll need a stronger argument than the IAU's controversial planet definition to make your point.

Additionally, I disagree that marriage has to include the potential to produce offspring. Using that definition, anyone who cannot have children due to age or a medical condition cannot get married, regardless of either one's gender. And if you count adoption as "producing offspring," that option is open to single individuals and gay couples, so your argument falls short there as well.

Paula said...

Hi Laurel,
Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are much more knowledgeable about planetary definitions than I.
As I undrestand it, you believe achievement of hydrostatic equilibrium to be the key to differentiating between planets and other solar system objects. You would categorically exclude objects that do not meet this criteria, such as asteroids.
Likewise, I believe the union of male and female to be a key component of the definition of marriage. While it is true that some mixed gender marriages will not produce children, the fundamental components are there. A homosexual union will never produce children by natural means.
Another way of looking at it (and this has nothing to do with planets; analogies can only go so far):
Every child on earth, at the moment of conception, has a mother and a father. Nature ensures that the mother is there when the child is born, and generally will be there to raise the child. Marriage, as a uniquely sanctioned prerequisite for procreative activity, ensures that the father is also there to raise the child. It is in society's best interest to support and uphold the natural family unit. Unfortunately, the institution of marriage has been weakened by the acceptance of sexual relations outside of marriage and by no-fault divorce laws which make marriage a non-binding contract. The result is millions of children being raised by single parents, most of them with limited or no contact with the other parent (most often the father).
Grouping same-sex unions in the same category (marriage) as male-female unions further dilutes and weakens our concept of marriage. Proponents of same-sex marriage seem to view it as nothing more than a validation of a committed relationship between two people, having little or no impact on society as a whole. I believe that, over the course of a few generations, the impact would in fact be devastating.
We need to be working as a society to strengthen traditional marriage. There will always be some who desire some different form of union, whether between same-sex partners, multiple partners, or something else. The inclusive policy may seem to benefit these individuals, but will not benefit our society as a whole; sadly, the greatest price will be paid by the children who will increasingly grow up without the security of a married father and mother.
Here is an article from a few years ago discussing how some of this has played out in the Scandinavian countries: