Sunday, 13 June 2010

Times: Gay parenting, research and politics

A lot of tut-tutting has followed in the wake of the discussion on gay adoption by Parliament's Social Affairs Committee. But I'm none too sure that the discussion has been much advanced by the criticism of the questions raised by committee chairman Edwin Vassallo and member Beppe Fenech Adami.

Although the online replies were quick and sharp, in one respect the critics shared a crucial assumption with Dr Fenech Adami and Mr Vassallo. Namely, that one can use experience or research to read off the correct answer to the question: Should gay couples, as such, be permitted to adopt children?

However, neither experience nor research provide any clear-cut answers. Nor will they in the foreseeable future. It is not because we know too little (although that argument can be made) but because the evaluation of the evidence depends on other judgments that we make - about things like justice, social harmony and how the world, in general, works. Not to acknowledge this is to duck the core political issue at stake.

This is not the same thing as saying that all research boils down to a matter of opinion. For example, Mr Vassallo pinned his understanding of the nature of the family to a speech made earlier this year by President George Abela. But that speech hinged on a mythical idea of the family.

It can be shown, using historical and anthropological evidence, that what President Abela thinks of as the natural family is not so at all. And while the term "family" is not infinitely elastic, it is not inscribed in nature, either. In human practice it is used very flexibly, unencumbered by pre-emptive definitions.

However, the various studies about gay parenting, listed by readers retorting to Mr Vassallo's question, are a different matter. Yes, many studies, showing that sexual orientation is not a significant variable, have been endorsed by professional US associations, such as the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the American Academy of Pediatrics (and the list goes on, beyond the US).

But both the endorsements and the conservative criticism are ineluctably political. I stress ineluctably. This is not a case of politics intruding on what ought to be neutral expert judgment. It is a case of taking expertise beyond what it can say neutrally; that is, experts on (say) psychology passing judgment on what would be a politically preferable society.

For example, the studies are indeed valuable for showing that there are no glaring differences between heterosexual and homosexual parenting, in terms of impact on children. But the field of study, relatively new, is incomplete. It is only one's prior political inclinations that would sway one to read the evidence as therefore clearing the way for gay adoption, instead of indicating that the "experimentation" with children is still too risky.

On its own, this example might suggest that time will settle the issue. But that is to suggest that the problems lie solely with the answer, not with the question.

A lot depends on the question being asked, however. Are gay couples as good as heterosexual couples - on average? Or are some gay couples as good as any heterosexual couple? They are very different questions, with socio-political conditions affecting the answer.

An affluent gay couple, circulating largely in liberal circles (friends, neighbourhoods, schools) may be able to raise their children as well as any couple. But if being gay adds to the difficulties of raising a child when you are also divorced, working-class and/or a member of an ethnic minority, the "outcomes" for children of gay parents may well be less, on average, than for those of straight parents. (Some studies assert that there is, in any case, no difference to be seen when like is compared with like; but they are not definitive).

It could be retorted that such results get the cause-effect relationship all wrong - that it is not gay parenting that is leading to the differences but heterosexual prejudice - and politics should address the prejudice. But this gets us back to arguing whether the question of adoption should be suspended till the prejudice is addressed. Which side you choose will depend not on expertise, but on which political struggle you favour addressing first.

Finally, even the criteria of success in child-raising have a political slant. Should the criterion be social adjustment? Surely many of us would be unhappy to see children completely adjusted to a world skewed by greed, prejudice and injustice. Many of us, but not all.

What about the criterion of "tolerance" and democracy used by recent studies to show that gay parenting may actually be better for children? It stops being convincing the moment one realises that all it means is that gay parenting is good for raising children who are open to things like, yes, gay parenting. A political philosophy, once again, is embedded in the criterion of success.

Research is useful for destroying myths. It can help us explain and understand the extent to which we create the environment which then, in turn, limits or broadens our possibilities. It can inform our judgment.

But it stops being research, and becomes political advocacy, the moment its results hinge on an argument about how justice, liberty and equality ought to hang together. The quicker we recognise this, the faster our public conversations can address the heart of the issues.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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