Why Two in One Flesh: The Western Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy

73 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2017 Last revised: 20 Mar 2017

See all articles by John Witte

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 2015


Questions about polygamy are likely to dominate Western family law in the next generation. Two generations ago, contraception, abortion, and women’s rights were the hot topics. This past generation, children’s rights and same-sex rights have dominated public deliberation and litigation. On the frontier of Western family law are hard questions about extending the forms of valid marriage to include polygamy and extending the forums of marital governance to include religious and cultural legal systems that countenance polygamy. This Article analyzes the 1,850 year tradition of Western laws against polygamy and the growing constitutional and cultural pressures to reform these laws today. I show how the traditional Western cases against polygamy and same-sex unions used strikingly different arguments drawn from the Bible, nature, rights, harm, and symbolism. I conclude that, because these arguments are so different, Western nations can responsibly hold the line against polygamy, even if they choose to accept same-sex marriage and its accompanying norms of sexual liberty, domestic autonomy, equality, and nondiscrimination. I reject ideological arguments, pro and con, that anti-polygamy laws are a form of traditional Christian morality. I reject slippery slope arguments, from the right and the left, that acceptance of same-sex marriage must inevitably lead to acceptance of polygamous marriage. And I reject arguments from domestic and international sources that religious freedom norms command the accommodation, if not validation, of religious polygamy. The West may, and in my view should, politely say no to polygamy. An Appendix to the Article provides a detailed guide to different forms and terms of plural marriage discussed and prohibited in the West — real polygamy, constructive polygamy, successive polygamy, and clerical polygamy.

Keywords: Polygamy; Western Family; Family Law; rights; same-sex.

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Why Two in One Flesh: The Western Case for Monogamy Over Polygamy (2015). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 64, No. 6, 2015, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-424, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2897657

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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