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.


  1. So how would you define marriage then? If for two people who love each other then that leaves the doors open for anything goes.

    Comment by Anonymous — 9 December 2012 @ 11:00 pm

  2. Thanks. I’m criticising here only one of the lines of argument from the C of E. The authors set themselves a difficult task in trying to construct a secular defence (persuasive to government) of their definition of marriage. My concern is that using procreationism is dangerous and unnecessary. If a Christian definition of marriage is wanted then I’d suggest turning to the New Testament. Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 verses 6-9 writing about singleness (his preferred option) and reasons for marriage does not mention offspring: a significant omission given ancestry’s importance in Jewish tradition. Now if you want secular arguments, well, some are less bad than others. British historical custom should be considered. By contrast, a resort to anthropology could end up being used to justify polygamy. Even worse is using reproductive biology as a foundation – ask a farmer what is the ideal male:female ratio for breeding (it isn’t 1:1). The Church of England and anyone campaigning for a traditional male:female definition of marriage would do well to drop the idea of linking a marriage’s value to its potential for procreation.

    Comment by John — 11 December 2012 @ 8:41 am

  3. ‘Procreationism also has implications for people who have been married for years:’

    Sorry, but it’s not procreationism.

    Comment by David Shepherd — 13 December 2012 @ 1:39 am

  4. Thanks David from u-church. I accept that “procreationism” is not the right label (because it is already in use for something different) and have removed it from my post. I would like to find (or invent) a one word label for the belief that every marriage must have a reproductive purpose alongside other purposes. How about reproductionism?

    Comment by John — 13 December 2012 @ 8:15 am

  5. The common law is clear from Blackstone’s Commentaries: ‘A possibility of issue is always supposed to exist, in law, unless extinguished by the death of the parties ; even though the donees be each of them an hundred years old.’

    What the vows of marriage holds forth is an exchange of assurances upon which the law to this day respects in applying a presumption of paternity to the father. This is based on, at least, a biological probability. While you deride procreationism, Edited:[some other people] would gladly extend the marital presumption to a person who has no biological connection to the child. What gay marriage seeks to do is to replace this with conferring an unfounded presumption of parenthood upon the partner of the birth mother. This would AUTOMATICALLY privilege a non-biological person with greater rights than any extended relative on the mother’s side. We’ve all watched enough of Brooke Shields in ‘What makes a family’ to realise that even civil partnership just won’t keep those pesky litigious grandparents at bay.

    Comment by David Shepherd — 13 December 2012 @ 10:39 am

  6. I’ve never studied Law. I accept that English common law has enduring significance. You cited Blackstone’s opinion (published in 1769) which is about inheritance and paternity at age 100 for a man. By contrast among women even today only a tiny percentage give birth past age 60. So if two elderly people get married it is reasonable to assume that the marriage’s purposes do not include reproduction.

    After that, you’re discussing gay marriage and that’s not my interest.
    David Shepherd’s website at considers that topic in detail.

    Comment by John — 13 December 2012 @ 11:10 am

  7. Just read BBC quotation from Archbishop of Westminster’s sermon. He said “the love of husband and wife, which is creative of new human life, is a marvellously personal sharing in the creative love of God who brings into being the eternal soul that comes to every human being with the gift of human life”. If that extract is fair (I cannot face listening to whole sermon) then it’s even worse than the C of E document. Archbishop Nichols is valuing marriage for its role in reproduction, and doing that devalues marriages where the wife and husband have no intention of having children.

    He also loads more weight on marriage than it can bear: marriage is a blessing: it is not the source of eternal life. In the New Testament the way God gives eternal life to a person is not through biological birth (which as Augustine says just leads to death eventually), but through a person being “born again” (as John’s Gospel says) and at last being raised from the dead by God’s power. People do not gain Eternal Life automatically, just by intrinsic nature, simply by being born. Rather it is a gift of God.

    Comment by John — 26 December 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  8. A valid marriage contract is a bit like a valid home insurance policy, by which the insurer agrees to pay out against potential household claims.
    1. You can say that the policy is perfectly valid before a loss is ever recouped. Equally, you can have a valid marriage without reproduction.
    2. You can even intend to *never* invoke a claim against the policy (as adamantly as some never intend to have children).
    3. However, you cannot say on the basis of 1 and 2, that the purpose of insurance is not intended to encompass potential household losses. It is merely designed to ameliorate, rather than mandate household losses. Marriage is designed to ameliorate(rather than mandate) parenthood.

    Something may be tolerated by law without the law making it legally intended by design. It is clear that coercion and non-consummation are legally tolerated (being voidable causes), but not legally intended.

    A voidable marriage remains valid until one party is aggrieved enough to seek redress (and cannot be shown to have agreed to it). You can have a valid marriage, even though one or both partners consents to marriage under duress, or is deprived of conjugal rights. The law simply permits the aggrieved partner to cancel the marriage obligation with an annulment.

    That a valid marriage is invalidated though the petition of the aggrieved spouse is an accommodation of their personal privacy. The spouse must decide what they can tolerate, even if marriage is not geared towards this purpose. This does not mean that the institution of marriage can ever legally *intend* coercion or non-consummation.

    What is clear is that marriage allows society to channel the potential impact of heterosexual passion (including children) into stable committed responsibilities. As you posted on my blog, Paul alludes to this in 1 Cor. 7:6 – 9, i.e. it is better to exercise that passion within a stable committed partnership (marry) than to burn.

    The law can intend to accommodate the potential for children. The vows of marriage exchange mutual assurances that any potential children born of the wife will also be the husband’s parental responsibility: the automatic presumption of paternity.

    Comment by David Shepherd — 15 January 2013 @ 1:37 am

  9. I meant to say: ‘Marriage is designed to ameliorate (rather than mandate) the impact of heterosexual intercourse, including reproduction.’ The problem is that in defining the purpose of marriage, we might only consider what it intends to mandate and, of course, reproduction is *not* mandatory.

    Rather, we must consider what the law, through marriage, intends to *regulate* (mutual fidelity and shared reproductive rights and responsibilities). Marriage is open to those couples who, the law considers, *at first sight*, have the constitutive (rather than tested) capacity for immediate lifelong fidelity requirement *and* potential reproductive responsibilities of marriage. This is why being already married, being of the same sex, being close family relations and being a minor completely invalidate a marriage.

    Comment by David Shepherd — 15 January 2013 @ 2:29 am

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