The heart of the debate over polygamy is whether it is inherently harmful to women and children, and that debate is sure to reignite as Utah challenges a federal judge’s decision to strike a portion of the state’s bigamy law.
The latest blog on Polygamy.org, a website operated by plural marriage opponents, argues for keeping laws outlawing polygamy by contending the practice is abusive. The post goes on to make some emotional appeals for upholding Utah’s bigamy statute.
But an intellectual argument against polygamy was made last month by Julia Chamberlin, a recent University of Utah law graduate, and Amos N. Guiora, a U. of U. law professor.
Their article, "Polygamy: Not ‘Big Love’ but significant harm," was published last month in the academic journal Women’s Rights Law Reporter. Chamberlin and Guiora focus mostly, but not exclusively, on polygamy in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The lawyers wrote polygamy is a "crime of harm" with women and children as the victims.
They advocate for laws against polygamy and child and sexual abuse resulting from it and — just as important to them — enforcement of those laws.
From the article:
We identify three distinct harms that pervade modern day FLDS culture: child-brides, lost boys and polygamy. Often FLDS members exact the three distinct harms through verbal, sexual, or physical abuse. In addition to causing harm to members, all three distinct harms directly violate the law, yet leaders practice all three with impunity on a regular basis in accordance with FLDS beliefs, [Warren] Jeffs’ instructions, and the imposition of the instructions by enforcers.
Chamberlin and Guiora go on to recite the history of Mormon polygamy and research conducted in the legal and social science fields about the effects of polygamy, including that it leads to underage marriage, the treatment of females as commodities and the eviction of teenage boys. There are plenty of anecdotes, some from Chamberlin and Guiora’s own interviews with men and women who are no longer part of the FLDS.
The authors acknowledge there are some examples of happy polygamous households and women finding empowerment through polygamy, but they contend the body of research concludes plural marriage is inherent with abuse.
To that end, we call on law enforcement officials, prosecutors and courts to recognize their responsibility to protect crimes’ victims. Polygamy is not abstract; it is a concrete crime with clear consequences for those forced to participate in it. Self-governance is not a viable option, and the state cannot turn a "blind eye" and leave insular communities the freedom to determine how to conduct their own affairs.
In other words, Chamberlin and Guiora are arguing for something broader than keeping a bigamy statute. They appear to want the state to actively investigate polygamous communities and prosecute the crimes they find there.
If you think Polygamy.org, Chamberlin and Guiora are unfair to lump all polygamists into the categories of child and sex abusers, you have an important person who agrees with you: U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups.
The state made these arguments as it was defending Utah’s bigamy statute in federal court. Waddoups didn’t buy it, saying the state didn’t demonstrate physical abuse or crimes like failure to pay child support were more prevalent in polygamous households than in monogamous households. And in the case of the plaintiffs who overturned part of the bigamy statute, the Brown family from TLC’s "Sister Wives," Waddoups noted there were no such abuse allegations against them.
But Utah’s bigamy statute will be argued again, and the inherent ills of polygamy — or lack thereof — will be argued then, too.
— Nate Carlisle