The sneaky debate over legalizing adoptions by gay couples.
Several million American children reportedly live in homes with at least one gay parent. In most cases, the same-sex domestic partner of that parent has no legal parental rights or responsibilities. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that these "co-parents" should be allowed to undertake such rights and responsibilities by adopting their partners' children. The announcement has provoked outcries from conservatives, with each side claiming to represent science against politics. In truth, each side's "science" is loaded with politics. Here's how they fudge the data.
1. Define the presumption. Both sides acknowledge that the evidence on how well kids fare with gay parents as opposed to straight ones is incomplete and doesn't yet show big differences. Conservatives spin this tie as a win, figuring that current laws should stay in place until evidence proves that gay parenting is safe. Focus on the Family says the AAP's research is "inconclusive" and "should not be used in legal cases to make any argument." That way, the burden of proof stays on liberals.
The AAP shifts the burden to conservatives by defining their presumption as a prediction that big differences will show up in studies. The question, according to the AAP, is "whether there is any empiric support for these assumptions." Since those differences haven't shown up yet, the AAP concludes that the presumption has been falsified.
To make sure that the assumption that straight parents are superior can't be falsified, conservatives trot out the "guinea pig" argument. According to Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, gays shouldn't be allowed to raise kids—as they have in the studies reported so far—because "children are not guinea pigs and should not be used as pawns in some grand social experiment." The position of the Family Research Council, in short, is that families are too important to subject to research.
2. Define the question. According to Connor, "The International Journal of Epidemiology reported that among homosexuals, there is an increased incidence of suicide, depression, multiple sexual partners, and domestic violence compared to the heterosexual population." From this, Connor concludes that "problems endemic to the homosexual lifestyle make these relationships inherently unstable, and thus unsuitable for the raising of children."
Supporters of gay adoptions dispute these correlations. But to repeal bans on gay adoptions, they don't have to prove that gay couples, on average, are as parentally fit as straight couples. They just have to change the question to whether all straight couples are more parentally fit than all gay couples. Suppose, for example, there's more suicide, depression, promiscuity, and domestic violence among blacks than among whites. Would such findings justify a ban on adoptions by blacks? If not, why would they justify a ban on adoptions by gays?
Taking this approach, the AAP cites "evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual." Note the key word: can. "All the literature suggests that as long as a parent is providing a loving, caring environment, the parent's sexual orientation doesn't make a difference in the development of the child," says a co-author of the AAP policy. Again, note the key phrase: as long as. By narrowing the comparison to parentally fit couples, the AAP bypasses Connor's contention that straight couples, on average, are more parentally fit.
3. Define the standards. Connor says studies show that "sexual identity confusion is common among children raised by gay parents" and that "children of lesbians are less likely to fit traditional gender roles." The AAP denies the "identity confusion" charge but acknowledges that "men and women who had lesbian mothers were slightly more likely to consider the possibility of having a same-sex partner, and more of them had been involved in at least a brief relationship with someone of the same sex," though this didn't change the proportion who considered themselves gay as adults. In fact, says the AAP, "growing up with parents who are lesbian or gay may confer some advantages to children. They have been described as more tolerant of diversity," for example. In one study, the AAP notes, parents and teachers described kids of lesbians as "more affectionate, responsive, and protective" and less "bossy, negative, and domineering" than kids of straight parents.
These descriptions reek of bias. Each side is rigging the experiment by defining the outcome in terms—"affectionate," "tolerant," "confused"—that validate its own ideology. At one extreme is Connor's crude sexism. "Fathers masculinize their sons, mothers civilize them," he says. At the other extreme is the AAP's pseudoscientific liberalism, which holds that "obtaining donor sperm or arranging for a surrogate mother"—like "finding an accepting adoption agency" or "confronting emotional pain and restrictions imposed by heterosexism"—is just another "challenge" facing gays who want to be parents. Connor oversimplifies nature; the AAP treats it as morally irrelevant.
4. Define the variable. Connor says "children do best when raised by a mother and a father." Bob Knight, the family research director at Concerned Women for America, calls gay couples "motherless or fatherless families." CWA president Sandy Rios adds, "Telling the public that a homosexual couple can raise a child as effectively as a married couple is on par with telling them that a single mom provides as complete parenting as a mom-and-dad couple." Note the linguistic trick. These descriptions assume that what makes a mom-and-dad household better than a single-parent household is the number of genders. But there's another variable that could account for the difference: the number of parents. In that case, having two moms is more like having a mom and dad than like having just a mom.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.