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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Ireland, Secularism | 3 comments

A Response to Ben Conroy and Some Questions for the Iona Institute.

Ben Conroy has written two posts on polygamy and equal marriage on the Iona Institute website. One which explores the reasons given by me and Colette Browne  on why polygamy should remain illegal. The other focuses on the quality of research surrounding same-sex parenting and the burden of proof.

The fact that Ferguson – and, for that matter, Colette Browne – implicitly acknowledge we can’t talk about marriage without talking about children is genuinely welcome, because so often in debates about same-sex marriage we’re told marriage is not about children

This is not true. When discussing marriage children are certainly an aspect to be considered, which I have done in regard to polygamy and marriage equality. However, that is not to say that marriage can not be talked about without also discussing children in every instance. For example, if, as Iona would have you believe, that a child being raised by a non-biological parent/s will not have the same outcomes as children with two married biological parents, does that mean that infertile couples should not be allowed to marry?

1 in 6 couples in Ireland (16.6%) is infertile, many of whom require egg or sperm donation in order to conceive; or they elect to adopt. Same-sex couples and infertile couples both utilise egg and sperm donation or adoption in order to raise children. Yet Iona only protests the marriage rights of one group. If marriage is primarily about children then why doesn’t Iona argue that infertile couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. What reason can Iona give that denies same-sex couples marriage rights that doesn’t apply to infertile couples? If the answer, as I suspect it might be, is that the infertile couple can still provide a child with a mother and father, then what parenting attributes are specific to men and women? Aside from the ability to breastfeed, what do women possess that is vital to child rearing that men don’t? And vice-versa?

We end up relying as Ferguson does on the claim that true consent to a polygamous marriage cannot really exist in an unequal society. But what if we succeed in making society less sexist and patriarchal – why not legislate for polygamy then?

Conroy seems to ignore the latter half of my article which specifically hypothesises a situation where a full egalitarian society exists. I also discuss increased hostility that exists within polygamous relationships and higher risks of low self-esteem and depression.

Conroy then asks if I would still oppose  polygamy if society became sufficiently egalitarian. The answer is I don’t know, dare I say I am agnostic about it. What I would do is analyse the options as objectively as possible, weight up the consequences of legislating for polygamy against not doing so. I would use the same processes which allowed me to come to the conclusion that marriage equality should be legislated for and polygamy, in our current society, should not be. However, if no negative outcomes for legislating for polygamy were observed then I would not oppose legislation. Would Conroy oppose legislation of polygamy even if there were no negative consequences? If so, why?

In the second post Conroy argues that proof must be presented to show that there will be no ill effects on children by the introduction of marriage equality. Conroy doesn’t believe this has been done despite the dozens of peer-reviewed papers and scientific consensus on the issue.

reliable evidence regarding same-sex parenting is still very thin on the ground. The studies in this regard are almost always based on tiny or non-random samples or both. In the absence of much more compelling evidence (and in the presence of significant evidence showing that a marriage between one’s biological parents is certainly better for child welfare than a variety of other kinds of relationship), the burden of proof is on those who want to substantially change the institution of marriage. Mr Ferguson doesn’t think sample sizes matter all that much in psychological studies, and on this matter I just think he’s flatly mistaken.

First, I never said I don’t think sample sizes don’t matter all that. This is blatant and rather insidious distortion of what I actually stated.

There are many different scientific methods utilised by researchers across dozens of disparate fields. Each method is tailored to yield the best and most accurate results for each different field of study. For child developmental psychology small-medium longitudinal studies are employed.

The link provided by Conroy when saying I am “flatly mistaken”  discusses the problem with small samples sizes in psychological studies.

They define “bite-size science” as research papers based on one or a few studies and small samples.

However the article never defines what a small sample size is, so we are in the dark as to what they consider small enough to be problematic. Also the research in LGBT parenting is certainly more than “one or a few studies”.

Others have criticised sample sizes in LGBT parenting studies such as Professor Nock, however none of them are experts in the field of psychology.

If the court were to accept Professor Nock’s primary criticisms of these studies, it would have to dismiss virtually the entire discipline of psychology. The vast majority of research in child development, and in the field of psychology more broadly, would be invalidated as unscientific. The research design of the studies on lesbian and gay parenting that Professor Nock criticizes is by no means peculiar to or below the generally accepted scientific standards of the field. On the contrary, most of the research designs used in these studies characterize predominant methods employed throughout the entire discipline of psychology.

Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology and head of Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at Cambridge University, stated:

The methodologies used in the major studies of same-sex parenting meet the standards for research in the field of developmental psychology and psychology generally. The studies specific to same-sex parenting were published in leading journals in the field of child and adolescent development, such as Child Development, published by the Society for Research in Child Development, Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, and The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the flagship peer-review journals in the field of child development. Most of the studies appeared in these (or similar) rigorously peer-reviewed and highly selective journals, whose standards represent expert consensus on generally accepted social scientific standards for research on child and adolescent development. Prior to publication in these journals, these studies were required to go through a rigorous peer-review process, and as a result, they constitute the type of research that members of the respective professions consider reliable. The body of research on same-sex families is consistent with standards in the relevant fields and produces reliable conclusions.

As many studies on LGBT parenting meet the highest standards required of psychological research, on what basis does Iona reject them? And if they do reject them due to some apparent “flaw”, does Iona reject the entire field of psychology as they use the same methodology?

I am in agreement with Conroy on one thing, a quote by a blogger Rob Dreher,

that most of us have a priori beliefs about the nature of marriage, and that very few of us really make up our minds based on the evidence

It is evident that Conroy’s proiri Catholic beliefs about marriage  have led him to reject the scientific consensus on LGBT parenting. When science and ideology clash, science is often the victim. It is why we have creationists and anti-vaxxers etc., and Conroy’s and Iona’s rejection of science is no different.  But it must be asked, even if he did accept the conclusion of the research, would Conroy still oppose marriage equality? I suspect he would.

I would be interested if Conroy and/or Iona provided answers to the above questions which I shall repeat here.

  • If marriage is primarily about children then why doesn’t Iona argue that infertile couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. What reason can Iona give that denies same-sex couples marriage rights that doesn’t apply to infertile couples?
  • What parenting attributes are specific to men and women? Aside from the ability to breastfeed, what do women possess that is vital to child rearing that men don’t? And vice-versa?
  • Would Conroy oppose legislation of polygamy even if there were no negative consequences? If so, why?
  • As many studies on LGBT parenting meet the highest standards required of psychological research, on what basis does Iona reject them? And if they do reject them due to some apparent “flaw”, does Iona reject the entire field of psychology as they use the same methodology?
  • Would Conroy still oppose marriage equality even if he accepted there were no ill effects on children?

  • John Hamill

    Another problem with polygamy relates to property rights. How is ownership of assets managed between three or more parties, who each may enter a polygamous marriage at different times, with different amounts of wealth? What happens when one party wishes to divorce two or more others in a polygamous marriage … how are the assets divided up then? This has nothing to do with marriage equality. No matter the gender or orientation of the parties to a polygamous marriage, the law prohibits such unions in part because there is currently no mechanism to deal with property rights.

  • Vivisectus

    I still do not understand why you feel that it is OK to use studies that claim the possibility of a negative outcome is higher for a type of relationship to argue in favor of not allowing such relationships to be officially recognized in the same way marriages are.

    The statistical likelihood of such outcomes is neither here nor there were this kind of discussion is concerned.

    If it turns out that marrying Belgians leads to a higher possibility of violence in a relationship, would we be justified in forbidding people to marry Belgians? Of course not! That would be an intolerable limitation on someone’s freedom.

    In a way, our Ionian friends are correct: there is just as little reason to oppose polyamorous marriage as there is to oppose gay marriage. Maybe one day there will be a group looking to get exactly those rights.

    The real question is why the Ionian Institute is focussing at such relative splinter-groups as gay people and those who are in polyamorous relationships. If we accept their arguments at face value, then studies that show a statistical increase in the likelihood of a negative outcome for either children of a family unit or for the adults in such a unit are acceptable grounds on which you can permit such units to exist in the eyes of the law.

    Since children of divorced families tend to have higher instances of negative outcomes, and the adults involved in divorces tend to see more domestic violence, perhaps we should forbid divorce? We could make a similar case against single families, or families where one parent is not the biological parent. There are a LOT more of these then there are gay people looking to marry.

  • Denito

    To follow your point about the problems with polygamous marriage through to their logical conclusion, there should be no problem with polygamous same-sex marriage, so perhaps you should also make some lobbying efforts to have that legalised.