Shrinking the Footprint Ecotheology of human fertility and population

9 December 2012

Church of England should not make reproductive potential essential to marriage

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 12:58 am

Having researched Christian attitudes to human fertility, when I saw the recent Church of England statement (7 December 2012) on marriage my attention immediately focused on a phrase that looks dangerously close to the idea that a marriage is validated by its potential for reproductivity (an ideology that can be labelled “reproductionism”). My reaction appears below:

The C of E statement includes in their “definition of marriage” as an essential feature:

“the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation”

The (anonymous) authors may think the word “potentially” sufficient to avoid linking a marriage’s value to its reproductivity, but there are many people whose infertility is discernibly permanent prior to marriage i.e. they completely lack potential fertility. I want to alert the C of E authors to the danger of using these ideas, by mentioning some of the disturbing implications and historical consequences.

For example, the ideology raises questions about eligibility to begin a marriage for the following kinds of people:

  • A permanently infertile person (for example a castrated man, a woman who has had a hysterectomy, or is past the menopause, and the elderly).
  • A man and woman who intend to remain childless or childfree (for whatever reason).

It also has implications for people who have been married for years:

  • If a husband or wife is infertile for ten years is that grounds for divorce? (That was one view among diverse medieval rabbinic interpretations of the text “be fruitful and multiply”.)
  • If a childless husband and wife fail to seek medical fertility treatment, is the marriage invalidated?

These are just a few of the grotesque implications.

The church should steer well away from this. I wonder why the C of E authors chose to dredge up that line of argument. I understand their primary concern is about a different issue and I realize they have no intention to pursue the logical implications further by adding fertility-related criteria for men and women seeking marriage. Even so, in a context of defining marriage their mention of a potential for biological reproduction as distinctive of the essence of marriage is unhelpful. They are lending credibility to procreationism (and natalism). A marriage which husband and wife know in advance will be childless is just as valid as any other marriage.

I urge the Church of England to amend their statement.

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