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 and important: 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 from many cultures which illustrate the harm that women often suffer in polygamous societies and argues that allowing polygynous marriage would be a failure to comply with international law protecting the rights of women. The case against many forms of actually-existing polygynous traditions is strong. But missing from the report are the voices of women who choose to live as sister wives in polygynous families, as well as the wider economic and political conditions which both shape those choices and imperil them. Instead, the report treats polygamy as a cause whose coincident evils are assumed to be its consequences.

This attempt at induction leads to the 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 are born into a polygynous culture 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 possible the very laws prohibiting polygamy contribute to the difficulty in finding or forming beneficial polygamous families and help to create the environments for harmful polygamous traditions to develop.[2]

Section IV of the report (p. 47) does respond to claims 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, that the state has the duty to police deviant families because they are deviant.

Cook’s report serves as a warning of how feminist thought, sincerely concerned about liberty, can be overgeneralized to potentially 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 good suggestions for forcibly transitioning communities away from polygamy.


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