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The Global Implications of Utah's Ruling on Polygamy

In Utah a federal judge has recently ruled unconstitutional certain portions of a law that make polygamy a crime. This is an interesting decision, especially in light of how polygamy affects the status of women both inside and outside of Utah—in, say, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Or Canada. Or anywhere. It’s as though Judge Clark Waddoups, who in his Utah decision claimed there was no “rational basis” under law for distinguishing between a man shacking up with a few women and informal but established polygamy, had ruled in a total vacuum.

But worse than a single US judge’s decision has been the reaction from so-called respectable media outlets who believe, despite all worldwide evidence to the contrary, that the ruling struck a blow for unvarnished personal freedom.

“Consenting adults should be able to engage in personal relationships without fear of arrest or criminal charges,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “That’s a far cry from the state legitimizing such relationships by providing marriage licenses for them or conferring on them any of the perks of marriage, such as joint tax returns or spousal benefits.”

But is it really such a far cry? The semi-legitimization of multiple unions for men now carries with it penalties only for the many women they more or less marry. To start with: the issue of “consent” is very questionable. For instance, five years ago at the University of Calgary, in Canada, researchers examined the effects of polygamy among 117 women and compared them to 235 women who were in a monogamous marriage. “Women in polygamous marriages showed significantly higher psychological distress” those researchers concluded: among them, phobias and somatization—meaning the distressed experienced various bodily pains for which no physical cause was found. At Ben-Gurion University in Israel, a more equal comparison of polygamous and monogamous Bedouin families yielded this conclusion: “The findings revealed that children from polygynous families [meaning the state in which a man has several wives] reported more mental health and social difficulties as well as poorer school achievement and poorer relationships with their fathers than did their counterparts from monogamous families. In addition, the children from polygynous families rated their families’ functioning and economic status as poorer than did those of monogamous families.”

In Turkey, where polygamy is nominally illegal but nonetheless practiced by certain rural groups (as it is in Utah), Dicle University’s psychiatry department studied 42 senior wives and 46 junior wives, along with 50 wives from monogamous marriages. The 2012 results, according the study, which was published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry: “It is clear that the participants from polygamous families, especially senior wives, reported more psychological distress. Once again somatization—inexplicable physical pain—was reported by many of these wives.” The researchers’ conclusion: “It is essential to increase awareness of the significance of polygamous family structures among psychiatrists and other therapists.”

But let’s backtrack a bit, and talk about “consenting” adults. As Marion Munn, who found herself in a polygamous marriage for years, told NPR: it’s fool’s talk to discuss free will when many women “are doing it because of religious coercion.” What, after all, are the social, psychological, or economic advantages of being one among several over being the one and only?

Any economist can tell you: the more there is of anything, the lower the individual value of each item. In the case of countries (or states) where a man can have several cohabitating women—and their offspring—without incurring repercussions, indeed often with the expressed blessing of the legal system, there is only one conclusion to draw:

If polygamous marriages, formal or informal, were truly the joyful, prosperous unions proclaimed by the men who form them, I can promise you individual women would be out right this minute collecting lots of cohabitating husbands. Interestingly, however, they have thus far refrained.

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