06/29/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Different Kind of Family Debate

The contrast between the American and British ways of arguing over family values has never been more visible than over the past few days. On Tuesday, Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) launched her epic 11-hour filibuster in the Texas State Capitol in Austin to block the passage of a bill that would have closed 37 of the state's 42 abortion clinics, and on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court rejected two major efforts to deny the right of marriage to homosexual couples. Across the Atlantic, emotions were running equally high, though they were expressed rather more decorously. The Baroness Deech of Cumnor, herself a Dame Commander of the British Empire, called the attention of the House of Lords to the plight of two elderly spinsters living in the Wiltshire market town of Marlborough.

Miss Joyce and Miss Sibyl Burden are something of a cause célèbre in British legal circles. The two sisters never married and have lived together for decades, caring for aged parents and other relatives in the family home. As they grew older (Sibyl is now in her late 80s, and Joyce her mid 90s), they began to worry that when one of them dies, inheritance tax will require the surviving sister to sell the family home. In 2004, civil partnerships were granted to gay couples, offering substantial inheritance tax benefits, and the sisters began a campaign to seek one for themselves. "If we were lesbians, we would have all the rights in the world," the sisters have said. "But we are sisters, and it seems we have no rights at all."

Since 2004, a characteristically British compromise has been in place where marriage is concerned. When civil unions were granted to gay couples, the intent was to confer the same legal rights and privileges associated with marriage while minimizing religious tensions around the symbolically charged institution. In many ways, this was an inspired choice. Britain often finds itself trying to reconcile the cultural sensibilities of an established church with the secular thrust of European law, which protects the freedom of religion but not religious traditions of sexual discrimination. But the current compromise has given rise to anomalies. Under current law gay couples cannot marry, and straight couples have only the option of marriage rather than civil unions. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which has already been passed by the House of Commons and will receive its final consideration by the Lords on July 8, is an attempt to bring order to the current situation.

Some of the most gripping reading this week in Lords Hansard, the daily transcript published on behalf of the Houses of Parliament, has come from the line-by-line examination of the bill. With a fascination with surreal counterfactuals worthy of the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, the Lords showed particular scrupulousness in considering the new law's impact on "persons in transition," transsexuals whose right to marital union is affected as they progress through the stages of gender reassignment. A pharmacist by training, Baroness Gould of Potternewton spoke eloquently of the pain caused by a requirement "for married transpeople who wish to apply for gender recognition to be single at the point of gender recognition" to married couples who wish to remain together when one of them changes gender. At the same time, a proposed clause allowing a married partner to veto a husband's or wife's proposed sex change elicited thoughtful consideration of how far people will go to in order to make one another unhappy, and the myriad ways a marriage can go wrong.

A few minutes later, Baron Lloyd of Berwick put paid to any feeling that things were beginning to sound alarmingly urban and metrosexual. After reminiscing about a long-dead bishop whose sister had kept house for him, he turned to speak on behalf of unpaid caretakers, suggesting that those undertaking a role occupied in previous generations by wives and other female relatives might perhaps be natural candidates for the benefits of civil partnership. "In our village," he declared, "there is a man who suffered a severe riding accident many years ago, as a result of which he is paralyzed. He has been looked after with the utmost loyalty by the young man who previously looked after his horse." It was tempting to wonder whether the loyal retainer might possibly be alarmed by such an idea.

Still, I had not expected to come away with quite so much admiration for the quirky group of elder statesmen -- and women -- whose job it is to try to bring order to the corpus of British law. Nor had I expected the Lords' debate to offer such a vivid awareness of the kaleidoscope of life on this island. One comes away from their discussions suspecting that they are a group who have seen it all, and there is little that would surprise them. But then again, I am pretty sure none of them were in Austin this week.

The historian Kate Cooper is the author of Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, out from Overlook Press on Sept. 26. Follow her on Twitter @kateantiquity, and read her blog at