The Ban on Bigamy is Inconsistent and Illiberal

This post was written by Owen on July 28, 2009
Posted Under: Civil Liberties
Image: Mike Licht. Would have used an image of a bride with two husbands, but Creative Commons didn't have one. So here's a picture of John McCain instead.

Image: Mike Licht. Would have used an image of a bride with two husbands, but Creative Commons didn't have one. So here's a picture of John McCain instead.

Those of you who lead busier lives than I do (which at the moment is probably most of you) might have missed this news story which came out recently: Emily Horne, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was yesterday given a 10-month suspended sentence for “serial bigamy”. Lisa Baker-Conway, the sister of her fifth husband, was apparently “angry” that Horne didn’t get a custodial sentence.

I’m perfectly willing to accept that Horne’s husbands cared deeply for her and were very unhappy that she deceived them, but why the hell should this be a crime, let alone a crime so serious that it merits an actual prison sentence, as Baker-Conway wanted? I can’t imagine any of the husbands involved would be much less upset if she’d just had an affair with the other four men rather than marrying them, and adultery’s not a crime, for the very good reason that it’s not an area where we think state interference is appropriate.

The judge reportedly argued (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) that Horne “undermine[d] the institution of marriage” by getting married “at the drop of a hat”. This is pathetically flimsy. As with adultery, it isn’t and shouldn’t be the law’s place to tell people how quickly they should get married. But I’ll be generous, and assume that what the good judge meant to say was something like: a marriage (or equally a civil partnership; the same arguments apply) is a commitment between two people, and is defined as such in law, so bigamy (shouldn’t it be “pentagamy” or something if she got married five times and none of them ended in divorce or were annulled?)  undermines marriage as a legal institution. Well, so what? That’s clearly true, but only in the same sense that same-sex unions would “undermine the institution of marriage” in places where it isn’t recognised  (or as interracial unions did historically in the American Deep South or Apartheid South Africa). If the best argument that can be formulated against bigamy is an appeal to the dictionary it’s tempting not to even bother to respond.

Put simply, there is no reason not to recognise polygamy in law; it should be legally possible for people to marry more than one person at a time. If we permit consenting adults to marry (or enter into a civil partnership – again, as far as this article is concerned it’s a trivial semantic difference) without regard to age, gender, race or sexuality, I see no reason why the number of partners involved should be uniquely restricted. Emily Horne’s actions were wrong not because she happened to have five husbands (or because she was a “former adult film actress”, as if that was remotely relevant and not just prurient gossip), but because she was deceitful. And deceit in relationships, unpleasant though it might be, isn’t any of the law’s business.

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Reader Comments

Ben

I agree that there is no convincing reason why marriage must be monogamous. I also agree it’s not the state’s business if we are deceitful in our romantic relationships, or we refuse to fit some traditional vision of what marriage is supposed to mean.

However, it can be the state’s business if we are deceitful in the formation of legal agreements. Emily Horne’s husbands seem to have believed that she was not married to anyone else when they agreed to enter marriage contracts with her, and the fact that she was could have had real consequences regarding the arrangements attached to a legal marriage (particularly financial). So for that, I think the state does have a case for intervening – just as it would if polygamy was legal and someone deceived their marriage partner into thinking that they had no other spouses.

#1 
Written By Ben on July 30th, 2009 @ 1:02 am
Owen

That’s a fair point. If the judge had said that that was what she did wrong then I probably wouldn’t have objected – it was the fact that he specifically said that Hornes “undermined” the institution of marriage by marrying multiple times that pissed me off.

#2 
Written By Owen on July 30th, 2009 @ 1:28 am
Ben

Sure. The court got it right for absolutely the wrong reasons…

#3 
Written By Ben on July 30th, 2009 @ 5:48 am
avm

also, shouldn’t it be pentandry…?

#4 
Written By avm on August 10th, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

Stop being so pentandantic Alice…

#5 
Written By Salman Shaheen on August 10th, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

http://www.chambersharrap.co.uk/chambers/features/chref/chref.py/main?title=21st&query=polygamy

Looks like -gamy as a suffix can refer to spouses of either sex. Though pentandry would be right too, since all Horne’s spouses were male.

#6 
Written By Owen on August 10th, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

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