Got to be there: Michael Jackson and the new marriage regime
By W. James Antle III
The most heartbreaking image from the star-studded public memorial for Michael Jackson came when his 11-year-old daughter Paris tearfully paid tribute to her father, bidding him goodbye. It was a warm sendoff from a seldom-seen child to the man she described as the "best father you could ever imagine."
It's all the more heartbreaking that there have been persistent claims that Jackson was not her real father. Arnold Klein, Jackson's longtime dermatologist, has been alleged to have fathered the late King of Pop's children. So far this is the closest Klein's come to a public denial: "To the best of my knowledge I am not the father of these children. I can't answer it any other way. I don't want to feed any of this insanity that's going around."
Rumors have even begun to swirl about the children's maternity, though former Jackson wife Debbie Rowe's attorney has denied them much more forcefully: "Ms. Rowe is the biological mother of the two oldest children." The third child was reportedly conceived by a surrogate mother whose identity is unknown and Jackson admitted in an interview was a stranger to him.
Even the official story isn't exactly Ozzie and Harriet. Jackson told Rowe of his longing to become a father while she was working in his dermatologist's office. After announcing she was pregnant with their first child, Rowe and Jackson wed in 1996. They divorced in 1999 with Jackson getting sole custody of the two children and Rowe went to a private court to have her parental rights terminated in 2001. A story published last year in the Daily Mail, for which Rowe was interviewed, reported that the couple never really lived as man and wife.
Although reports of Rowe's interest in and level of involvement with her children have varied, Jackson in his will requested that custody be awarded to his own 79-year-old mother. The secondary caregiver? Diana Ross, the 65-year-old pop singer who is of no relation to the children.
Is this an ideal way for children to be raised? It's an uncomfortable question, not just because it second-guesses the wishes of a beloved entertainer who has just died and left behind a grieving family. It's also uncomfortable because modern medical technology and flexible parenting arrangements have formed many less famous families, giving children to adults who wanted them desperately and parents to children who just as desperately needed them. But the benefits do not come without costs.
Let's stipulate that Jackson, for all his personal problems and abuse allegations, may have indeed been a loving and devoted father who did the best he could for his children. His daughter has said so, though she is a child and this is all she has ever known. Everything about this arrangement -- from the circumstances of the children's conception to the way they will be cared for by which parties -- is about the wants and needs of the adults involved first. Now we may have children who were effectively orphaned even before their natural parents died.
There's a third reason the question about what's good for the children is so uncomfortable: our society is in the process of severing the institution of marriage from reproduction and biology. Far from being rooted in some wicked superstition, the traditional definition of marriage is based on an indisputable biological fact: it takes one man and one woman to naturally produce a child.
Marriage has traditionally been about two things: A couple pledging to bind their lives together and to take care of any children their sexual union produces. The new unisex definition of marriage can in some sense fulfill the first pledge but -- because sex between two men or two women cannot naturally produce a child -- not the second. And the latter promise, involving innocent third parties who cannot care for themselves, is the most compelling reason for the government to have any involvement in marriage whatsoever.
One hesitates to bring the marriage debate up in the context of Michael Jackson, and not just because of vile slurs about gay people's proclivities toward children. Jackson and Rowe, after all, wed under the old rules of marriage. The Octomom -- the most controversial example of me-first childbearing in contemporary America -- is not a product of some ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. How is it fair to deny rights and privileges to committed same-sex couples on the basis of damaging behavior engaged in mainly by heterosexuals?
Unfortunately, redefining marriage to exclude natural procreation rewrites the rules for everyone. "While marriage does not require procreation," writes attorney Margaret Liu McConnell, "the status the state accords the couple is linked to the promise that they will not abandon, give away, or leave their child to the public charge." Whatever the new marriage regime offers, it cannot uphold this promise consistently. The exception will have replaced the ideal.
Perhaps a new institution will need to be devised that will do what traditional marriage once did. Or maybe we can find a way to accommodate same-sex couples without losing the essential meaning of marriage, the way the Catholic Church has accommodated a small number of married priests as an exception that does not undermine the rule.
But surely, before we continue to experiment with a revolution in marriage and the family, we should first ask some uncomfortable questions about what is good for the children.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator. He can be reached at jimantle at aol.com.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!