Q&A with pioneering ethicist Margaret Somerville
On the Ryerson fiasco, children's rights and same-sex marriage
BRIAN BETHUNE | Jun 28, 2006
Australian-born Margaret Somerville is a professor of law and of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, and the founding director of the university's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. In two decades of work, the pioneering ethicist has staked out several positions that have stirred controversy, including her opposition to late-term abortion and infant circumcision. In June, it was Somerville's rejection of same-sex marriage that brought her a storm of protest -- and a standing ovation -- during convocation at Toronto's Ryerson University, when she was invested with her fifth honourary doctorate.
Philosophers have discussed ethics forever, but ethicist is a fairly new job. How did you come to it?
The sort of ethics I do, there were only a few of us in the world in 1975 who went on to develop this new field. You could see that new medical science was evolving so quickly that the law just couldn't keep up with it. So we started to do ethics as an add-on to law. There were no rules, really, governing medical research using human subjects. Philosophers were still busy with how many angels on the head of a pin, and we were down in the trenches of the emergency rooms of hospitals saying, "Oh my God, can you use this new research treatment on this person without consent?" It was a totally different experience.
Your job is to tell people what to do?
No, no, no. My job is to help people find as many as possible of the right questions -- not to give the answers. It's for them to decide what they want as the answers. And one way I describe it is, when you've got a big ethics issue it's like having someone hand you a fan. The first thing you've got to work out is what are the struts of the fan, and those I see as being like the various schools of ethics or ways in which you can analyze ethics. And then the next thing you've got to look at is, have you got five different scenes on that fan or one big scene? If it's five different scenes, you're going to have to work out each one and see if you can accommodate all the values that should be respected in each.
How does this play out with same-sex marriage?
You've got one scene -- the adult scene -- that tells you, "Of course same-sex couples should be treated the same as opposite-sex ones, with the same access to institutions, respect, protection for each other, claims on each other, etc." But when you go to the child scene and ask, "Do children have a right to have a mother and a father, preferably their own biological parents, and should that be our basic rule, and anything that varies from that we have to justify the variation, like we do with adoption when it's in the best interest of the child?" If you're going to give that to children, marriage is the institution that sets up those rights for children. It links biological children with their biological parents, when they're married at least. But it can't do that with same-sex because same-sex can't make a baby together, not yet. The problem is they're going to probably be able to do that in the future.
That's how you came to your position then, via children's rights, not gay rights?
Yes, because I was looking at new reproductive technologies, and I believe very strongly that it is fundamentally wrong to create a child from two women or two men or from artificial gametes, and it's wrong to do it between a man and a woman without a natural ovum and a natural sperm. What's happening now is that the new science is going to let them make sperm or ova from stem cells. It would be just as wrong, in my view, for a man and a woman to do that as it is for two same-sex people.
But if the issue is children, what does marriage have to do with it, since there are many childless heterosexual marriages?
That there are heterosexual childless marriages or infertile ones is not the point, because what you have to look at is not the individual couple, but what it means at the societal level in general. Marriage is a man and a woman: what does that symbolize, not in every case, but at the societal level? It's our basic presumption about how we transmit life to the next generation. After you choose your basic presumption, you say, "Well, if we can't achieve this, what are the exceptions that we will allow?" And when you allow exceptions you have to justify them. Adoption is the clearest example. If two people are going to have a baby, nobody goes and checks them out to see if they're going to be good parents and then stops them if they are not. But you don't give a baby to a couple unless they pass a huge investigation. The natural norm you allow to go forward. With exceptions, we as a society have obligations.
How would same-sex marriage change society's ability to enforce its obligations?
Because gay couples can't naturally have a child, they have to seek assistance in doing so, and presently they're doing that through new reproductive technologies, which are provided by society and taxpayers' money and stuff, so that means we have to work out what is right for us to do. Once same-sex couples are married, it's very hard to say creating children is not the right thing to do, because marriage is actually a compound right, it's the right to marry and found a family. Children come with it. That's what it is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it's what it is in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. So then you have to say, "Well, is this the right thing to do to these kids?"
Your thinking has changed based on what you've heard from those children?
I've been looking at this for about two years in my research, and I've read a huge amount of stuff by psychologists and by the children themselves. The one group of people who up until really just the last six months have not been heard from are the kids who've had the actual experience of not having a mother and a father. I've seen a couple of kids of same-sex couples who say they're really glad they've got two mummies or two daddies, but most of those kids have been quite young, usually somewhere around 10 to 14. All of the stuff that I've seen from the children who are now 20 to 25 years old is different. I might be getting a biased sample because these guys are sort of lobbying me, but what these kids tell you is, they feel that the people who've brought them into the world in this way were only thinking of their needs, their desires, what would make them happy. They didn't think about how the kid would feel.
But if you raise a child in a loving environment . . .
This is not a very popular thing that I say, but as important as love is -- and it's immensely important -- it's not enough. There's more to us becoming fully human. It's what Kierkegaard calls the power of becoming oneself. You have to feel you've got authenticity and roots and connections in order to be able to use that power fully. These kids tell me things like, "I look at myself in the mirror and half of me is missing, and nobody had the right to do that to me." Another called it "a big, black void down below you."
There's no way to uncouple this issue from marriage?
It's a big mistake to think marriage is really about two adults' public commitment to each other and a declaration of their love: it's really essentially about constructing a family. I know my views are very hurtful to some people who feel very strongly about this, and I regret having to hurt them. And I must admit it was not my original stance, which came much more from looking at the situation of gay people. I think they are a vulnerable group that has had horrible discrimination against them, and I can see that same-sex marriage, the inclusiveness of that, is one way that you could ensure that the discrimination stopped. So that, for me, is a big argument in favour of same-sex marriage. But then you look at another vulnerable group -- children -- and to protect them in a way that they should be protected, I think we can't have same-sex marriage. We can have civil unions, which I realize is not what gay people want, but I think it can stop discrimination, give them protections and rights they absolutely must have. That's the sort of thing we do in ethics when we've got two competing sets of values. You look for the least invasive, least restrictive alternative, one that's reasonably available and likely to be effective to achieve the goals you want. So that would be, for me, civil unions, and keep marriage as a man and a woman.
Did the Ryerson fiasco surprise you?
I guess I only heard there was any problem three or four weeks before it happened, and then I got a lot of emails and such. Some of them were polite enough and some said I was a neo-Nazi, a hate-monger, that I was guilty of a hate crime -- which actually is defamation -- that I was probably in the Ku Klux Klan, that I was the new Ernst Zundel, and that it was very fortunate that I was Australian because they could pack me up and send me back to where I'd come from, just like they'd done with Zundel! So it was nice that one of my gay friends put on a dinner for me the night I came back from Ryerson.
It must have bothered you.
I've had worse. I wasn't too upset until I saw the memorandum that came out of Ryerson that said, literally, "Well, you know, if we'd known who she was and what she stood for we wouldn't have ever chosen her, but now it's too late, we're going to hold our nose and confer the degree."
Why did you accept after so clear an invitation to disinvite yourself?
Well, I freaked out when I got it. I told my dean of law, "That's it, I'm not going. If they think they've got to give this to me I'm not going." But [Ryerson president Sheldon Levy] phoned me and said, "I just want to tell you, you are really welcome here." I gave him the benefit of the doubt. And I really was between a rock and a hard place, because I really believe in freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and academic freedom. I'm glad I went, because of the response -- an overwhelming standing ovation, and of the over 300 students I greeted as they got their degrees, only three showed any hostility.
Same-sex marriage has become the litmus test of acceptance of gay rights for many people. You don't accept that?
I know how hurt those feelings are. What I am is what I'm not allowed to be: pro-gay rights except for marriage -- if you call that a gay right -- and pro-children's rights. That's a category that, for gay activists, is simply not allowed to exist. So we're told there are only two choices: you're either pro-same-sex marriage and pro-gay rights, or you're anti-same-sex marriage and homophobic. If I had to really choose between those, I'd choose pro-same-sex marriage, but I don't believe I have to choose that way. I believe that I can be pro-gay rights, and pro-kids' rights.
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