Are we making the family too special for our own good?

Carolyn Moynihan
May 19, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

The family has had a privileged place in civilisation, with laws to protect it (governing marriage, for example) and, in modern societies, often policies to support it financially (tax breaks or child benefits). Why? Because the family is the little community in which children are born and nurtured and prepared for citizenship – with the help of other institutions.

It is a law of nature that the adults of a species look after their own young, and most human societies want them to do it well, not only for the sake of the individuals concerned, but because it is better for society at large.

Does that mean that the nuclear family is sacrosanct? That it is beyond criticism or change? That it must be kept together at all costs, even the safety of its weaker members? Or that people in other family structures do not deserve the protection and support of the state?

Of course not. And yet there are people today who see the family consisting of a married man and woman with the children they generate, rational and generally successful though it is, as an ideal that threatens equality and diversity in the domestic sphere.

Among them are two Scandinavian philosophers writing in the Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics this month. They examine the "special status" accorded the nuclear family and find that it is not consistent with "contemporary Western values" relating to women and children.

This alleged power of the nuclear family model is surprising. Divorce, cohabitation, sole parenthood and same-sex marriage have produced a family landscape that reflects quite well the way we value women and children now, one would have thought. We are constantly told that "families come in many forms" and this "diversity" is celebrated at the highest levels .

Daniela Cutas and Anna Smajdor, however, are concerned with the remaining influence of the nuclear family as a social norm, "the family" as opposed to simply "families". They say this structure is treated as though it has a "moral status" or value over and above that of its individual members, and even in conflict with their individual moral status and interests.

Practically speaking, this means that the traditional idea of the family still shapes laws and policies in ways that are harmful to some individuals, especially women and children. For this reason the family may need to lose its special status, the philosophers argue.

But is it true that the nuclear family (still) has a status that obliges governments to protect it? And even if it does, how harmful is this to individual members compared with other domestic arrangements that are already approved or tolerated and supported socially, or yet others that might be, in a total free for all?

Certainly, the nuclear family is the model taken for granted in international law. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Men and women of full age … have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution." The same article states: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."

Cutas and Smajdor note the appeal to "naturalness" that underpins the UN definition and the belief that this natural family structure will be better for its members, especially children – assumptions shaping laws about the family throughout the West. They see various harms in this.

Fertility treatment is geared to health of the (nuclear) family unit not individuals. Infertility is officially defined in terms of failure to conceive after a period of regular sexual intercourse. This limits access to "treatments" such as IVF and surrogacy for same-sex couples and single women in some countries (Turkey, Italy and India, for example), although others, such as Sweden and the UK have loosened their criteria. The UK, the authors note approvingly, no longer requires that "a child's need for a father" be considered, but only "need of that child for supportive parenting".

Nevertheless they complain that,

"Biological malfunctions, such as blocked fallopian tubes and azoospermia, are irrelevant here. Rather, it is the deficit in the family (lack of offspring) that is addressed by medical treatment. Infertility is the failure to achieve the nuclear family through sexual intercourse, independently of any associated biological or medical problem."

How relevant, though, are blocked fallopian tubes or azoospermia to someone who is not trying to procreate? How would they even know they had such a condition? Surely it is fair to offer fertility treatments to those who have a known and immediate need.

The family bias ignores evidence that family fo rm is not what determines the best environment for children.

"Empirical research suggests that what matters most for children's well-being is the quality of relationships within the family and the support that the family receives, rather than family form, whether it is nuclear, whether the parents are married to each other, or the number of parents."

Yet there is also evidence that unmarried parents are more likely to split up than the married by the time a child is 12, thus contributing to instability (including future unions and separations) in children lives, and this instability is even more likely for the children of single mothers, along with the risks of child abuse by the mother as well as her partner/s. Is it better to impose these risks on children than to gear social efforts towards keeping their parents together?

The drive to preserve the nuclear family puts women at risk. The authors cite reports of policies that "often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children." Contact (by the separated father) with children was allowed even where there were "convictions or explicit reports of child abuse or domestic violence." The vulnerability of women to violence was treated as a marginal issue.

Frankly, this does not sound like the way family agencies act in most Western countries today. But in any case, US data shows that children of divorced and never-married parents are far more likely to have been exposed to domestic violence than children in married two-parent families.

It is obvious, however, that the authors are convinced the nuclear or traditional family has been oppressive for women and children for most of history and that it continues to be so for many today. This is because its privileged status and protection by authorities means "the family falls under the authority of their most powerful members" – in other words, the patriarchal male.

Historically, women and children were not regarded as having full moral status, but this has changed: women and children are now seen as equal. However, that change will not yield all its benefits for them as long as society enshrines "the (nuclear) family" as an ideal and norm.

So the philosophers reason, despite the fact that they both work in countries (Sweden and Norway) where more than 50 percent of children are already born to unmarried (cohabiting or single) mothers, and which rank highly for gender equality.

Is it safer for women in Sweden now? Apparently not . In Norway intimate partner violence is above the EU average . A Spanish-Swedish team of researchers last year called this mismatch between the high status of women and high rates of IPV "the Nordic paradox" – a subject on which they found a surprising lack of research. The decline of marriage hasn't done much for the mental health of young Scandinavians either.

Such indicators suggest that the real problem with the nuclear family today is not that it is valued too much but that it is valued too little, and that the concerns of Cutas and Smajdor are more theoretical than real.

Politicians don't take much notice of theories, but their policy advisors do. It is to be hoped that the prejudice against "the family" evident in the paper discussed here does not contribute to a further decline in social support for the little communities that both nature and experience point to as the conditions for personal wellbeing and the foundation of a healthy society.