Bramham: The hard evidence of polygamy's damage is bountiful

Vancouver Sun/November 15, 2009

A mother and her children head home from school in Bountiful, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman has taken it upon himself to be the one who rules on the ground-breaking constitutional case involving polygamy when it goes to trial sometime next year.

A mother and her children head home from school in Bountiful, B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman has taken it upon himself to be the one who rules on the ground-breaking constitutional case involving polygamy when it goes to trial sometime next year.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman has taken it upon himself to be the one who rules on the ground-breaking constitutional case involving polygamy when it goes to trial sometime next year.

Bauman, who was appointed in September, will decide whether polygamy is a justifiable limitation on religious freedom. Regardless of what he decides, it's almost certain that this case will be appealed first to the B.C. Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court of Canada.

Lawyers for both the B.C. and Canadian governments will argue that polygamy should not be allowed because of its inherent harm to women and children.

So, before the case even gets to trial, Bauman will have to decide whether to appoint someone to argue that the practise of polygamy is protected by the guarantee of religious freedom.

Until six years ago, the B.C. government held the view that the polygamy law was unconstitutional. As a result, for more than a decade it refused to lay charges against fundamentalist Mormon leaders in Bountiful.

The province's about-face gives some idea of how controversial and difficult the case is likely to be.

In law, harm doesn't have to be imminent. In two disparate cases -- Malmo-Levine, where the criminal offence of marijuana possession was upheld, and a child pornography case involving Vancouverite John Robin Sharpe -- the Supreme Court of Canada said it was enough that both generally cause harm.

Still, government lawyers need to show harm. They might start by looking at the medical research.

Dr. Susan Stickevers, an assistant clinical professor and residency program director at State University of New York with a longstanding interest in ensuring that polygamy remains criminalized, is certain the evidence is there.

Based on her reading of more than 50 peer-reviewed studies, she doesn't buy the argument that polygamy is a justifiable religious or cultural practice.

"When there is evidence of damage to women and hurt to children, we don't have to tolerate it any more than we would tolerate suttee [a woman burning to death on her husband's funeral pyre] or infant sacrifice," she said in a telephone interview.

Stickevers's interest in polygamy was first piqued in the mid-1980s when several of her students were "Sullivanians," followers of psychiatrist Henry Stack Sullivan who forced them to sleep with one another on a rotational basis.

But it was only 12 years ago that she began to study the research when a patient's health suddenly declined after her Muslim husband took a second wife. Since then, Stickevers has had a number of Muslim plural wives as patients. Their experiences mirror the research conclusions: Polygamy is bad for most women, particularly the first or senior wives.

The focus of the peer-reviewed studies varies widely -- Hmong people who immigrated to the American Midwest in the 1970s, fundamentalist Mormons, Bedouin Arabs, Nigerian Christians, African animists, Muslims in the United Arab Emirates.

Of those studies, 90 per cent conclude that women suffer some harm. The harm ranges from low self-esteem to mild depression to significant psychiatric problems.

Of the studies of children in polygamous families, 70 per cent found they are more likely to have poorer academic performance, greater behavioural problems and more difficulty adjusting in social situations compared to children of monogamous families.

The studies suggest it's because the families are poorer, less educated and more prone to marital conflict and family violence.

There is also general agreement that polygamy is a risk factor for both incest and abuse.

All of the studies examine what is more properly called polygyny since worldwide, polygamy is almost exclusively men with multiple wives and not women with multiple husbands.

The largest study of children in polygynous families was done in 2008 by Alean Al-Krenawi of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, who has done more research on the subject than anyone else.

He and his colleague Vered Slonim-Nevo surveyed 352 Bedouin Arab children in Grades 7 to 9. Of those, 174 were from monogamous and 178 from polygamous families.

Children from polygamous families had higher levels of chronic and persistent pain with no identifiable physical origin, obsession compulsion, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation (a milder form of paranoia) and psychosis.

They also had significantly more problems in peer relationships, significantly poorer relationships with their fathers and lower school achievement than did those from monogamous families.

Their study concludes with an indictment of polygamy.

They warned of a "bleak future for children from polygynous families . . . The many difficulties these children suffer may lead to a sense of hopelessness and cause them to seek other activities (e.g. pleasure-seeking). Furthermore in adolescence and adulthood, these difficulties may put them at risk for delinquency, drug abuse and unemployment."

Further on, they write, "[P]olygyny may be seen as a detrimental model for marriage not only for the children of polygynous families but also for Bedouin Arab and Israeli societies as a whole."

Al-Krenawi's research suggests the average polygamous family has five more children than the average monogamous one. But there are outliers like Bountiful leader Winston Blackmore, who has more than 100.

Unsurprisingly, children spend less time with their polygamous fathers. Children of the less-loved wife or wives suffer most and, usually, they are the children of the first wives whose marriages were arranged and not the subsequent wives whose marriages are often love matches.

Two studies done in the United Arab Emirates found that fathers spent less than two hours a week with the children of their first wives. They also spent considerably less or nothing at all on gifts, education and health care for the first-family children.

In many cases, schooling and health costs were left to the first wife, who either had to get a job to support the children or had to rely on older children to help out financially.

The one study notes that this contradicts the Koranic verse about polygamy, which says: "Marry women of your choice two or three or four, but if you fear that you shall not be able to treat justly with them, then only one. . . That will be more suitable to prevent you from evil."

Poverty is not only the result of polygynous families being larger. Several studies concluded that the fathers' educational levels are significantly lower than those of monogamous men. In a 2000 study, Al-Krenawi noted that the father's level of education was inversely related to the number of children and wives.

Oddly missing from all of the studies, however, is the most obvious harm of all: The simple arithmetic of polygyny denies many men the possibility of ever marrying and having children.

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