My Response to a Canadian Anti-Polygamy Report.

The British Columbia Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments about Canada’s prohibition of polygamy. British Columbia is where the polygamous Mormon city of Bountiful is located. One goal of the hearing is to provide prosecutors with better understanding and guidance regarding if and when to bring charges against polygamists in the future.

A recent expert witness to testify for the state in favor of the ban on polygamy was Rebecca Cook, who chairs the University of Toronto’s human rights law section.[1] Cook is one of two authors of a research report titled, “Polygyny and Canada’s Obligations under International Human Rights Law,” which was presented to Department of Justice Canada.

Cook’s concerns in both her testimony and the report are valid: that polygynous cultures like that of Bountiful are coercive and deprive women of freedoms and tend to damage them economically and psychologically. The report cites various studies and surveys which illustrate the harm that women often suffer in polygamous societies. From these it might have been straight-forward to make a case against coercion in various existing polygamous traditions. Instead the report arrives at the unsupported claim that polygamy is inherently harmful.

This failed attempt at induction leads to the absurd conclusion that in order to protect the human rights of women the state must take away their right to marry whom they choose. Although the report lists the economic dangers women in polygamous marriage face, it neglects to consider the women themselves as rational economic agents. Even supposing polygamy is inherently harmful, the fact that some women choose it over alternatives indicates that polygamy is, for them, the best option they are faced with. Legislating away an individual’s best option in life is rarely helpful to them.

As the report points out, prohibiting polygamy is the norm in places like the United States of America and Canada. Among the effects on polygamy of legal prohibitions are that 1) some individuals who would have chosen polygamy in a free society instead choose a different domestic life, and 2) individuals who do choose polygamy despite the legal and social costs are forced to live in insular and defensive communities ripe for coercion and abuse. Both of these effects tend to skew empirical evidence that might suggest that polygamy is inherently harmful. It is the very laws prohibiting polygamy which make good polygamous marriages difficult and help to create the environments for harmful polygamous traditions to develop.[2]

Section IV of the report (p. 47) attempts to respond to claims like mine that polygamy should be protected as a civil right. Unfortunately the authors assume the premise that polygamy is inherently coercive and harmful, so no arguments are actually addressed beyond the circular reasoning that polygamy cannot be a civil right because it is not.

Finally, even assuming again that polygamy is inherently harmful, many members of monogamous marriages suffer the same physical, psychological, and economic harms the report attributes to polygamy. In fact, monogamy damages far more women every day than polygyny (by virtue of its greater popularity) and, in this light, monogamous marriage is the more imminent threat to society. Yet the state not only tolerates it, but in almost all cases encourages it through special privilege.

Cook’s report serves as a warning of how feminist thought, sincerely concerned about liberty, can be used in an attempt to deprive a class of citizens a right even as fundamental as marriage. Laws, like those against polygamy, dictating how and who and how many individuals may associate with each other are not much better than Warren Jeff’s despotic marriage assignments.

1. Tracy Sherlock, “Decriminalizing polygamy would be a breach of Canadian obligations,” The Vancouver Sun, January 6, 2011.
2. In the report’s defense, Section VI, beginning on page 69, presents reasonable suggestions for forcibly transitioning communities away from polygamy.


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