Domestic partnerships, civil marriage, and civil rights


I knew two women who lived together for 50 years. They took care of and loved each other as much as or more than any other couple I had ever known. Everyone who knew them considered their love to be precious and worthy of respect.

When one of the women became seriously ill and lay dying in the hospital, the other woman’s better health insurance did not cover any of their bills. Nor did she have the right to make life-and-death decisions for her loved one.

When the woman died, the other had no legal say over how she should be buried. The survivor also had no legal right to the home that her housemate had owned.

No one knew or loved better the woman who had died. Yet under existing law, all legal decisions were to be made by the dead woman’s only son, who lived thousands of miles away and had rarely visited his mother.

These women — who were twin sisters — had no legal protection then. And they would not have legal rights today, even under new marriage laws that include same-sex couples.

Two people do not need to be married to each other, nor do they need to be of opposing genders, to love one another deeply and to be committed for a lifetime. A human being has an enormous capacity to love selflessly, putting the needs and the life of a loved one ahead of his or her own.

Two people who have committed a lifetime of love to each other should have legal rights to protect, insure, inherit from, and bury one another according to their own wishes. They should be able to have these rights publicly recognized and honored.

Civil marriage, however, is too limited a device to protect these rights. Under the laws of all states, even those that permit same-sex partners to marry, the twin sisters could not marry. Nor can other relatives who choose to live together, and love and care for each other, for the rest of their lives.

Yet their love is no less valuable or sacred, nor their rights to protect and care for each other any less valid. If sexual attraction and activity are to be requirements for the recognition of committed love, then many currently married couples would not qualify. It is not for us to quantify or determine how one consenting adult loves another.

For thousands of years, civil marriage has been the legal union of a man and a woman who, in normal circumstances, can naturally produce heirs. Until the past century, the vast majority of marriages were arranged so that family wealth could be unified in one group of heirs, who were equally part of the husband’s and the wife’s family.

The woman brought a dowry, which represented the contribution of wealth by her family, to her new husband’s family. The concept of love was not part of the equation until relatively recent times. Most couples did not even meet until they were betrothed.

Rather than try to fit same-sex couples into the definition of marriage, it would be better and fairer to all people to expand domestic partnerships to include any two consenting adults who seek the same legal, tax, insurance, and inheritance rights as a married couple.

In this way, everyone’s civil liberties would be protected, and the traditional purpose and definition of marriage would remain intact.

Cynthia Millen, of Ottawa Hills, is an author and retired attorney.