CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Redefining the Family Out Of Existence

Aug 11, 2000

Given the overwhelming community rejection of calls to allow singles and lesbians to have access to IVF, the supporters of such a move have resorted to statistical sleight of hand to make their case. The argument now being put forward is that the traditional family unit is only a minority group, that alternate lifestyles are in fact the norm, and that the nuclear family is a recent invention.

Susan Mitchell, for example, writing in the 7 August Australian, says that 40% of marriages will fail, 20% of women will never marry, and 10% will be homosexual. Thus, she argues, the majority (70%) are not traditional families. “John and Janette are part of a minority group. . . . Their lives and their experiences do not reflect the lives of the majority of Australians today and certainly not those in the future”. Anne Crawford in the 7 August Age takes a similar approach, citing KPMG research to suggest the nuclear family will be extinct by the end of the century.

An article by Fiona Stewart in the 3 August Australian offers more of the same: “few children live with both their biological mother and father”. Other examples could be cited. But the family is not so easily deposed. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the natural family is not dead yet.

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that family households make up 70 per cent of all households in Australia. Moreover, 74 per cent of all children live with both natural parents. And the way one defines a family also influences the data. If a family is only described as one where mum, dad and children aged 0 to 17 are at home, then sure, the figures go down. But a more commonsense concept of family will see the figures expand greatly.

For example, even though I have not lived with my biological parents for many years now, that does not mean we have ceased to be a family. That is true of all kinds of families: where one spouse has died, or where an uncle has moved in, or where two sisters live together, and so on. Taken in this sense, the overwhelming majority of Australians are still living in nuclear and/or extended families.

Thus these critics of the family are trying to make their case by very careless use of the data. Part of the problem comes in the way family is defined. The Australian Family Association defines a family as any group of people related by blood, marriage or adoption. This is how most Australians view family. The nuclear family, along with the extended family, is all a part of what we call the natural family unit. And this unit still predominates in Australian society today.

Yes it is true that about 21 per cent of children today live with one parent. And yes it is true that people are marrying less, and/or putting off marriage to a later age. But figures which speak of the rise of out-of-wedlock births or the rise of single parent families are not figures to rejoice about. They are figures to be concerned about. Just as figures in rising rape rates or murder rates should be a matter of concern, so too should these. And just as governments have an ideal foreign policy, or an ideal trade policy, governments should have an ideal for social policy. Governments should be concerned about these trends in family breakdown.

Indeed, these kinds of trends are grounds for real concern in the US and the UK. Both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – hardly right-wing conservatives – have made it clear that societies which denigrate marriage and allow growing numbers of young people to grow up without fathers are asking for trouble. In many ways the debate in these two countries is over – they recognise that children need a mother and a father, and that broken families lead to broken societies. Australia needs to catch up with these nations. Here we still debate what a family means, and we still have many voices saying divorce does not harm children or society.

Moreover, those who parade the figures of family breakdown are forgetting one thing: social trends are not irreversible. The current trends in marriage breakdown and the like are not static. They may get worse, or, they may turn around and get better. Thus talk of the “extinction” of the nuclear family is premature at best. Families are much more resilient than their detractors give them credit for.

Another approach by those in favour of granting singles and lesbians IVF access, is to denigrate the family by repeating the old furphy about the family being a recent invention, a product of the 50s, and a very temporary feature of social life. Thus the Age article mentioned above cites retired sociologist Warwick Hartin, former director of Marriage Guidance Australia. He says, “The ‘50s were the golden era of the nuclear family. It wasn’t the way it was before or the way it has been since. It’s an historical blip, an aberration”. This is becoming a common criticism of the detractors of the family. But it is grossly incorrect.

The truth is, the nuclear and extended family is the way most people have lived throughout most cultures throughout most of history. The evidence for this is quite impressive. The detail cannot here be recounted. Suffice it to say that sociologists and anthropologists have made a very strong case for the historicity and universality of the natural family. Just two quotes will have to make do: Sociologist Amitai Etzioni has put it this way: “There never was a society throughout all of history . . . without a family as the central unit for launching the education of children, for character formation, and as the moral agent of society”. And the Times Literary Supplement Editor, Ferdinand Mount has commented, “The family is not an historical freak. If the evidence we have put together is correctly interpreted, the family as we know it today – small, two generation, nuclear, based on choice and affection…is neither a novelty nor the product of unique historical forces. The way most people live today is the way most people have preferred to live when they had the chance.”

As I told one journalist lately, it is odd to have to defend the family, given its universal acceptance. It is sort of like defending eating or breathing. People just do it, without seeing the need to defend it. Yet we live in an age where the detractors of the family – in the minority though they are – have hijacked the public microphone and are attempting to reframe the public debate on family policy, making it into their own image. But the truth is, as current surveys have shown (80 to 90 per cent against granting IVF access to singles and gays), most people live in and enjoy the family, and will not give it up without a fight.

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