Should Polygamy Be Decriminalized?

Posted: April 3, 2011 in News
Tags: , , ,

In recent news, a case about polygamy has been making some headlines here in Canada.  The following post talks about one of the articles I read earlier in the year and my arguments/beliefs pertaining to the situation:

In a society where the norms are held to strict standards, polygamy is often criticized and condemned by most.  Polygamy is defined as “the condition of having more than one wife or husband at the same time” (Webster Comprehensive Dictionary, 1987, p.979).  While illegal in North America, the practice is not uncommon, largely due to the fact that it goes unpunished; section 293 of the Criminal Code of Canada bans the practice, but no one has been prosecuted in over 60 years (Lak, 2010).

In the article titled, “Laws should target abuse, not practice of polygamy, lawyer argues”, George Macintosh, a court-appointed lawyer, challenges the polygamy laws of Canada and how they violate human rights.  Macintosh is currently in the news for defending the members of a Mormon sect in Bountiful, British Columbia.  The overwhelming amount of evidence collected –over a thousand pages of legal material pertaining to rights and the limitations of freedom– encompasses spiritual beliefs, children’s rights and the freedom of choice versus the standards of society.  Macintosh, would at the very least like to see the decriminalization of polygamy, arguing that it “would erase any stigma against people in those relationships and make it more likely that if there is sexual exploitation, abuse or even incest, they would be more likely to report those crimes” (Bramham, 2010).  To further support this belief, he references the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969 and the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005 as evidence of society’s acceptance and tolerance towards topics considered taboo.  He is not alone in his crusade: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association and the Canadian Association for Freedom of Expression are amongst supporters.  However, he faces a daunting task in trying to persuade and convince the chief justice that there is not enough evidence to support that polygamy is a harmful practice to those involved.

Canada is a country that prides itself in the freedom and rights of its inhabitants.  Keeping that in mind, it would not be naive to believe that Macintosh might be successful –to an extent– in modifying the polygamy laws of Canada.  While his argument is valid and well thought out, it also acknowledges the bigger picture of polygamy — which may very well be its biggest flaw.  The core basis of his argument is that freedom of choice should be at the forefront of polygamy, but how can one actually make a choice when they are raised to believe and follow that particular lifestyle?  Children born in a true polygamous environment, lack the knowledge to make an informed decision, as they tend to lead by example; knowledge is hard to attain when independent thinking is commonly frowned upon in polygamist homes where abuse is seen.  The irony is that the freedoms Macintosh is actively fighting for are the freedoms that the victims of polygamous abuse have lost.  One must not need to look further than the very sect he is fighting for in Bountiful, British Columbia; The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in that British Columbia town “has strong ties to the polygamous sect in Eldorado, Texas, where hundreds of children are alleged to have been abused and women as young as 14, alleged to be married to older men” (Lak, 2010).  With allegations such as these, it’s hard to defend Macintosh’s argument that decriminalization will erase the stigmas associated with polygamy and deter potential abuse.  The negative connotations that accompany polygamy are not so much about an intolerant society, but rather that they are largely based on the harsh realities of the practice — that in fact, polygamy and abuse usually coincide.  Society is plagued by perversions, violence and mistreatment of one another, therefore, why decriminalize and/or legalize a practice that has shown to exploit these issues?

To say that all polygamous relationships are abusive would be as foolish as saying all monogamous ones are free of it.  Of course this is surely not the case, but to essentially downgrade the history of polygamy for the sake of societal acceptance may prove to be an unwise decision.  There may be cases that demonstrate equality and love in a polygamous household, this I acknowledge; however, the fact is that while Macintosh talks about freedom and equality, neither tend to exist in polygamy because a man has most of the control and power.  One of the few arguments for pro-polygamy is that whatever consenting adults do in their own home should not be anyone’s business, but this is more than a moral dilemma case study and hardly an issue on personal privacy.  Green-lighting polygamy can result in an ill-effect on children, women, family dynamics and gives men a skewed view of reality.  It may increase (not decrease) the chance of child abuse, sexual and physical abuse and incest, to name a few.  The consequences of such a risk are simply not worth it and I see no real reasons to legalize or even decriminalize the act.  The real question is, when is this country going to start taking this law seriously, and move to prosecute those that have taken advantage due to the lack of punishment by the very government that made the law to begin with?

What do you think?

  1. momfog says:

    “having more than one wife or husband….” Yeah, right. I’m not familiar with any polygamous situations involving a wife having multiple husbands and that in itself tells me something is wrong. The weird uniformity of appearance and speech and the isolationist nature of these groups reeks of brain washing. Every time there’s an “issue” with this it’s about child brides and abuse, physical or emotional. How can all that fall under “religious freedom?”

    As a woman I cannot wrap my head around this and cannot imagine any situation where I would willingly and with sound mind agree to such a thing. It’s illegal, it should be, and the laws need to be enforced.

  2. Thank you for your comments momfog. I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you said. You’re absolutely right that the definition of “polygamy” in itself is laughable and speaks volumes about the true nature of these so called “relationships”.

    With some research on the topic, I can honestly and comfortably say that freedom of any kind is almost non-existent in the majority of these households.

  3. Hi. A very interesting post. So, I’m from South Africa. Here polygamy is allowed as part of common law. Its classed as a religious freedom – as African religions allow polygamy. So you can’t legally have more than one registered wife (in a civil ceremony) but you can marry ‘other wives’ in a traditional ceremony + it is recognised by law. Of course – it only operates one way. One man – many wives. The reality is that it wasn’t officially practised by younger people (altho’ I know a few Muslim men who did so unofficially). Then Jacob Zuma – an unapologetic traditionalist became President of the country. Zuma has three current ‘wives’ but five ‘wives’ in total. His second wife divorced him some years ago – she is a Doctor of Medicine and his third wife committed suicide – blaming him for making her life hell in her suicide note. Subsequently, he has married two more women – each with professional careers and both half his age. He has 21 children in total. Why educated, beautiful women would agree to become part of a polygamous relationship is not something I can understand and perhaps, others can hazard a guess. More men are asking their wives to accept this – now that a precedent has been set by the highest office in the land.

    I thot this anecdote might be interesting to you. I also know that most religions that support polygamy – also have strict rules. A new wife has to be taken for specific reasons only and has to be accepted by the previous wives, the man must support each wife equally and without discrimination, etc – but this is, of course, not what happens in reality and the system is biased towards the pleasures of men. The one thing that I will say tho’ is that older wives are not simply divorced and abandoned but are, in fact, cared for by their husbands even if they no longer have a ‘relationship.’ However, this is in no way meant as justification – just an observation.

    In addition, to the rights of women – an important point to note is that a man can father a hundred children but he can’t viably parent even 16 children. Essentially, they are brought up by their mothers and perhaps, older siblings.

  4. Thanks for the informative post Elinor Dashwood! It is certainly interesting to read about polygamy in other countries and cultures.

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