The institution of marriage has become the focus of public debate and reform, not just in the state-by-state political battles familiar to us in the United States, but across the world. Some of the longstanding practices currently being scrutinized both here and in other countries include parental approval in the choice of a spouse, permission for a husband to take more than one wife (polygyny), temporary marriage, close relative (incestuous) marriage, strict or permissive divorce terms, mandatory bride virginity, child marriage or betrothal and gender-structured marriage in which wives and husbands have different duties and privileges and therefore must be gender “opposites.”
Marriage reform is typically part of a larger agenda for social change. In earlier eras, challenges to bans on interfaith and interracial marriage were tied to political movements promoting religious, ethnic and racial equality and social integration. In the Middle East, Africa and Asia today, marriage reformers often aim to expand the rights and liberty of girls and women, while in the Americas and Europe, their primary aim is to advance social equality and respect for lesbians and gay men.
The primary argument for this change of policy is that the state allegedly has no business regulating marriage, which is a complex cultural and religious practice. However, the state does have an interest in promoting private caregiving within families — the care of children, elderly parents and sick or disabled relatives. According to advocates for marriage privatization, the state can better pursue its interest in promoting nongovernmental forms of caregiving by establishing and regulating civil unions for all who qualify, and steering clear of defining, interfering with or regulating “marriage.”