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Protect children from divorce

The current debate on no-fault divorce ignores the harm to children


Protect children from divorce
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“I hate divorce,” God says in Malachi 2:16. When divorce becomes common, it’s a sign that the culture has turned away from God. 

After rocketing upwards in the ’60s and ’70s, the number of annual divorces has glided downwards, but only because the marriage rate has dropped. And our current laws do nothing to protect the most vulnerable from the dangerous effects of divorce.

Until then-governor of California Ronald Reagan signed the first no-fault divorce bill into law in 1969, a spouse had to cite a breach in the marital contract by the other spouse in order to obtain a divorce. Usually, this meant something like adultery or abuse. Other states followed California’s lead in liberalizing divorce laws during the ’70s and ’80s.

Today, no-fault divorce is the law of the land in all 50 states. Maggie Gallagher makes much of the fact that marriage is the only unenforceable legal contract—because either party can abandon that contract at will. She derides marriage under this regime as “cohabitation with insurance benefits.” 

At minimum, states should strongly consider repealing no-fault divorce for married couples with children under the age of 16. For these couples, states should move to an at-fault system that allows divorce only in cases of adultery, abuse, or abandonment. 

Children, more than anyone else, are harmed by divorce. Children of divorced parents do worse in terms of mental health, physical health, and academic advancement. Some of the health effects related to the stress of a divorce are experienced decades later. Reducing divorce now means healthier, happier citizens in the future.

A law restricting only divorce between parents, rather than divorce for all married couples, is also more politically feasible. In the 1990s, when no-fault divorce was still a relatively hot topic, a poll showed higher support for barriers to divorce when couples have young children, as opposed to couples without children. 

Once children are in the picture, the illusion that divorce is a merely private matter vanishes.

It just makes sense. When the victims of marital breakdown are front and center, there’s more support for limiting divorce. In a time when same-sex marriage has been embraced by the broader culture, most people say they don’t want the government to interfere with the private lives of adults. But once children are in the picture, the illusion that divorce is a merely private matter vanishes. There are now obvious victims for the law to protect.

Many Christians struggle with the idea of incrementalism when it comes to law-making. We should, of course, strive to achieve the best laws we can, but we can’t let that prevent us from making better, more practicable laws in the present. Jesus demonstrated that even the laws of the Old Testament made concessions to the reality of a sinful world. When asked about divorce, He said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Because of the hardened hearts in America, divorce law will need to make concessions—at least for now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to pass divorce laws protecting children.

A divorce restriction centered around children has a third advantage. It teaches that marriage isn’t primarily about the personal fulfillment of the spouses. For decades—since no-fault divorce was first instituted—the law has taught that marriage is primarily about the personal satisfaction of adults. The logic of no-fault divorce leads directly to aberrations including same-sex marriage. If marriage is about personal fulfillment rather than permanent duties relating to the creation of a new family, then many will conclude that all consenting adults should be allowed to marry. A law forbidding divorce for parents demonstrates that marriage is about the good of children. It’s not, as Andrew Walker put it in these pages, “an adult-centered erotic escapade.” 

Fighting no-fault divorce puts the lie to the notion that “love is love.” Not all love has the power to create children, a feature distinctive to the love between a man and a woman. Marriage is about an embodied form of love that has children as its necessary consequence.

Arguments supporting no-fault divorce seldom deal with the documented effects of divorce on children. A recent TIME article advocating for even more permissive divorce laws doesn’t mention divorce's harmful effects on children. It barely mentions children at all. As a culture, we’ve become blind to what should be an obvious fact: Children need their mothers and fathers. Divorce jeopardizes what should be a child’s most secure relationship. Children, our most vulnerable citizens, deserve the full protection of the law. 

Aidan Johnston

Aidan Johnston is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute. He lives in Wheaton, Ill.

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