05/08/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gays Don't Take Away Parents, God Does

The marriage debate is often filled with inventive and unique arguments, something quite easy once opponents feel that faith exempts them from rules of logic and evidence. One argument offered by religious opponents of same-sex marriage is that "every child has a natural right to a mother and father." From that, they argue that same-sex couples should be denied the right to enter into marriage contracts.

The most obvious problem with this is that there is no such right, nor would same-sex marriage interfere with it if it did exist. The main threat to this "right" does not come from gay couples but from God, more precisely, from what the law labels "acts of God" or other similar events. Parents die. They die in tornadoes, floods, car accidents, and illnesses. Mothers die giving birth. When I was 11, my father had a heart attack. My brothers were younger, the youngest less than 1 year old. Who precisely violated this "natural right" to a mother and a father?

There are two fundamental views of rights. One is that there are natural rights, which others may not violate. These were rights the Founders spoke of: rights to life, liberty, and property. This is called a theory of "negative rights," meaning others are required to not do something to you. A violation of negative rights requires an act of force, the threat of force, or fraud. If I hit you over the head to take your wallet, I have violated your rights to liberty and property. If I hit you hard enough, I've violated your right to life, as well. A "positive right," supported by advocates of redistribution, argues that others must do something for you, not just avoid doing things to you. The claim that one has a "right to health care" is a positive right, because it asserts obligations on the part of others to provide it. Negative rights require others to refrain from acting in specific ways; positive rights require them to act in specific ways.

While I lean in the direction of negative rights myself, my purpose is not to argue the correct nature of rights but to show that the claim that children have a "right to both a mother and a father" simply makes no sense under either view of rights.

Under "negative rights" theory, whom do I sue for losing a father as a child? No one actively took him from me, unless you believe in a divine being who decides who lives and dies. In that case it is God, not gays, who did this. God lets mothers die in childbirth. He allows fathers to have heart attacks in front of their children, or to wither away with cancer. Are gays doing this?

A gay couple adopting doesn't take away a mother and a father. The children already have neither, which is why they are available for adoption. Gay parents are giving something to children, not taking something away. There is no violation of negative rights here.

Religious conservatives may argue that some gay parents were previously married, so now the child is denied both a mother and a father. Of course, by that logic, they have to oppose all divorces, whatever the reason. This would even force a wife to stay with an abusive husband, if they have a child, under the pretense of protecting the rights of that child.

Single mothers presumably violate this right, as well. Would they be forced to marry against their will?

The police can only legitimately intervene to prevent the violation of a right. Under negative rights theory, the function of government is to "secure" natural rights of individuals. That is when government force is justified.

This "right" is most comparable to the "right to property." That doesn't mean you have a right to a specific amount of property. It simply means what you legitimately own may not be taken by others without your consent. However, there is no ownership right in people, at least not since slavery was abolished. Children can't own parents, and parents can't own children. Parents can surrender custodial rights to others, or lose custody due to abuse or the inability to care for their children. Others may not use force to take a parent from a child without due cause, but there is no right to have two parents, or even one parent.

Under "positive rights" theory, this alleged right is even more absurd. When people say there is a "right to health care," they mean a redistribution of wealth to purchase care for those without. But how do we redistribute parents? Do we conscript unmarried men and force them to be fathers to children who are fatherless? If there is a positive right to have parents of differing genders, then someone is obliged to provide them to children missing one. If the religious right hates "Obamacare," how would they feel about mandatory redistribution of parents by the state?

The classical liberal tradition hewed to "negative rights" theory and never claimed children "have a right to both a mother and a father." The very idea would have been laughable. People were too aware of how common it was for mothers to die in childbirth, or for disease to take mothers, fathers, or both, from their children, yet conservatives pretend to be heirs of classical liberalism.

Liberals fought for the right of couples to divorce. They fought to make sure marriage contracts were a legal matter, and not the domain of oppressive state churches. All these changes, according to modern conservative thinking, would violate the rights of children. Note that children's rights are not a concept they invoke in other contexts. In fact, they go out of their way to deny any such possibility.

There is good evidence that children benefit from having two parents, but that doesn't mean those parents must be of different genders. However, there is no right to have parents. It is not an enforceable right under either rights theory. At best, it is the equivalent of saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone had intelligent parents?"

Children do have rights to be cared for by parents or guardians, singular or plural. Sometimes that means a mother, sometimes a father, and sometimes a mother and a father. Sometimes it means two mothers or two fathers. Whichever circumstances the dice of life determine for a child is what is. There is no violation of rights involved, just the vicissitudes of life.