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Professors debate definition of marriage

| Friday, January 26, 2018

In a debate Thursday, Tom West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, argued marriage should be defined according to early American state laws as an institution that is primarily for procreation, while Alexander Tsesis, Loyola University law professor, rejected this definition, saying it did not leave room for changes in the culture.

While the debate, hosted by the Constitutional Studies Program and the Tocqueville Program, was meant to focus on the role of the Constitution in defining marriage, West said this question was primarily the focus of state laws.

“The Constitution did not really have much to do with sex and the family because that was regarded as part of the state law … and so my focus is going to be mostly on state government policy on the subject because that’s where all the action was,” he said.

Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Hillsdale professor of politics, Tom West, discusses the definition of marriage as part of a debate hosted Thursday in Jenkins and Nanovic Halls.

West cited a quote from the Massachusetts Supreme Court from 1810, placing the importance of marriage in the idea that every marriage would produce children.

“Marriage is intended to multiply, preserve and improve the species. … A lasting community needs children to create a lasting generation of citizens,” he said.

Tsesis said taking the originalist interpretation of marriage from the core documents of our founding is a mistake. Instead, he said, the definition should allow for equality for the common good.

“One of the problems with using the founding as the determinative is the lack of plasticity that it allows for developments in the modern age,” he said.

After reviewing some of the changes in the interpretations of the Constitution and discussing the importance of human rights, Tsesis suggested a way for Americans to both use the core documents from our founding and apply them to modern day times.

“I believe that grounding things in the principles of the Declaration of Independence — pursuit of happiness, life and liberty, general welfare — allows us as a nation to take those roots and to evolve in our interpretation of their thought in a pluralistic way … a way that uses the past as a critical anchor to our understanding, and yet does not also close our eyes to the development of American culture, so that those ideals exist despite the fact that this nation is marred by slavery, sexual inequality, Indian removal and non-white inequality,” he said.

During the question and answer section of the lecture, Tsesis debated with West about what happens to women with ovarian cancer, or women who are in a postmenopausal stage and are unable to produce children if, according to West, marriage is centrally for the purpose of producing offspring.

“What happens after they can’t have children? Can society bar them from marriage?” Tsesis said. “It would be uncountable for the government to deny 70-year-old men and women from getting married.”

West responded by saying early state laws did not prohibit elderly people from marrying.

“They didn’t have the view that people could not get married, just that if they were young and did not produce children, that could be grounds for divorce in some states,” West said. “For the founders, the question was ‘who’s going to be the future of America?’ They didn’t believe immigration was the answer, like we seem to today. They thought that was what marriage was for, and that’s why we discouraged sex outside of marriage.”

Even attempts to gain a child through adoption offer a child that is “no one’s except for the law,” West said. Without a biological relationship to parents, he argued, a child will not be cared for as much.

“You can adopt, but that’s not the same,” West said. “It’s not anyone’s child except by the law.” 

In response, Tsesis said many women “do not want to have children” and that the idea that they do and that women should focus on nurturing children is a “stereotypical view”.

The lecture closed with a debate on the validity of marriage in the present and future. Prompted by an audience member‘s question about the legalization of polygamy, West said marriage as an institution is over.

“We have replaced the model of raising children with the child support model,” he said. “Marriage is over. … At this point, the Supreme Court can define marriage however they’d like and it would make no difference. Men are being put under a mandate of being forced to pay for their children and are unable to take part in raising the child. So fine — polygamy, incest, what’s the difference?” 

West said men are not equal to women in this process, and if the state got out of the child support system, men and women could be equal.

“The idea that we are in an area of equality is insane,” he said. “Men are always behind the eight ball in custody, marriage and children … and within a marriage women run it because she knows she can go divorce him and get child support.”

In response, Tsesis said that marriage is “a central institution.”

“I can’t imagine the government will get out of it,” he said. “If the government got out of child support the children would likely suffer and many males would be deadbeats and not give support because it would make their lives easier. But overall I think marriage is an institution and I don’t see any reason for it to end.”

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About Mariah Rush

Mariah is a senior majoring in American Studies and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. She is from the great city of South Bend, and was the Managing Editor of The Observer for the 2020-2021 school year. You can find her always on Twitter at @mariahfrush.

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