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opinion

With the seizure of 416 children in Eldorado, Tex., polygamous Mormons are in the news again - and not just in the United States. Daphne Bramham's new book, The Secret Lives of Saints, has also lifted the veil on polygamy in Bountiful, B.C.

The newly abundant information is important because our knowledge of polygamy has been based mainly on historical evidence, plus the biological theory of sexual dimorphism. But now we can study a polygamous experiment in the contemporary context of liberal democratic North America.

The results of the experiment show overwhelmingly that polygamy remains an oppressive social model. Women are treated as breeding machines, assigned in their teens to men decades older. They learn how to read and write but receive little other education that would enable them to work in the outside world.

Most men are not treated any better. Boys leave school in their early teens and go to work in enterprises owned by the leading men of the community. Often earning below minimum wage, they perform heavy labour - cutting timber or framing and roofing houses - and are as close to being slaves as is possible in North America. They are kept away from opportunities in the outside world by their cult-like religion and by the promise of receiving wives.

A small male elite - the prophet, his family and close supporters, and the appointed bishops - control the communities. The top men may have as many as 50 or 60 wives. They control the community's corporate resources and own labour-contracting companies to exploit the surplus labour of unmarried men and boys. The fundamentalist Mormons are not communistic, so you need to have a sizable cash flow if you're going to support dozens of wives.

This highly inegalitarian society in which women are chattels, most men are virtual slaves and a few wealthy older men control all the resources is anything but democratic in its governance. It is a millenarian theocracy in which the prophet reveals and enforces the commands of God. Followers are taught that the world will last only a few more years and, meantime, it's their duty to procreate bodies for pre-existent souls waiting to be born. Those who resist are expelled from the community.

Polygamy has been criminalized in Canada since 1890, but B.C.'s Attorney-General has been repeatedly advised that prosecuting polygamous Mormons may fail because they will defend their marriage practices as the exercise of religious freedom under the Charter of Rights. On the other hand, the Supreme Court of Canada said in its Labaye decision (2005) that polygamy is justifiably forbidden in the Criminal Code.

Beyond that legal debate, profound biological reasons support moving against the polygamous Mormons. Human beings are capable of either monogamy or polygamy, but the latter has been more common throughout history. Sexual dimorphism - men's greater size, strength, aggressiveness and later date of physical and sexual maturation compared with women - shows our species has evolved a tendency toward polygamy. Though not as pronounced as in sea lions, elk and gorillas, our sexual dimorphism resembles those polygamous species more than it does monogamous species such as wolves and Canada geese.

Monogamy requires the support of cultural norms and legal enforcement to exist. And this is no mere lifestyle choice. Monogamy is the sexual constitution underlying the West's political constitution of liberal democracy. Monogamy lowers the stakes of reproductive competition by guaranteeing a roughly equal availability of mates for all. Men who are excluded from reproductive opportunities will break any law in search of them, meaning that those who monopolize women in a polygamous society must be harsh and authoritarian in controlling not just their female chattels but also the surplus men.

The small cult of fundamentalist Mormons will not bring down the social order by itself, but Canada is now accepting substantial immigration from Africa and the Middle East, where polygamy is widely practised. If we don't enforce our existing laws against polygamy, we will jeopardize the fundamental institution of our free society and constitutional government.

Tom Flanagan, a former top aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is now professor of political science at the University of Calgary