December 15, 2006

Dobson Does Time

Posted at 12:01 pm (Pacific Time)

The Christian Right responded predictably to the recent news of Mary Cheney’s pregnancy. As James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, summed it up in an opinion article in this week’s Time Magazine, “Two mommies is one too many.”

Although the prospect of having a lesbian-parented grandchild in the Republican Vice-President’s family may be particularly unpalatable to antigay activists, it hasn’t led them to change their basic rhetoric. (However, the tone of Dobson’s Time article was unusually civil.)

Like most conservative arguments against sexual minority families, Dobson’s piece invoked scientific authority. And like most conservative diatribes in this arena, it misrepresented the research findings, suggesting the data show that children are damaged by having lesbian mothers or gay fathers.

However, the nature of that misrepresentation is a bit subtle and warrants comment.

In her rebuttal to Dobson, Jennifer Chrisler, Executive Director of Family Pride, assumed that Dobson’s assertions about “30 years of social science evidence” referred — albeit untruthfully — to studies of families headed by lesbian and gay parents. That is certainly a reasonable inference. When someone cites data to support a point, after all, the data usually have something to do with the argument.

Not so in this case.

When Dobson and other Christian Right activists claim that research shows “children do best on every measure of well-being when raised by their married mother and father,” they are not talking about research comparing gay versus straight parents.

Instead, they are trying to apply the findings from studies comparing children from two-parent (heterosexual) homes and children raised by a single parent, often in poverty. Many of the single-parented kids in those studies had endured divorce, the death of a parent, or other types of family disruption now known to have negative effects on children’s well-being.

Those studies show that, all else being equal, children generally do better with two parents than with one. However, they don’t address the question of whether the parents’ gender or sexual orientation makes a difference.

As I’ve discussed in previous postings, the research that has actually looked at families headed by sexual minority adults has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents. Moreover, their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents.

Refreshingly, Dobson has been publicly called to task by the two researchers he cited by name in his article. As detailed on Wayne Besen’s Website, both wrote letters to Dobson criticizing his misuse of their work.

Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center, accused Dobson of “cherry-picking” from his book and wrote:

“…There is nothing in my longitudinal research or any of my writings to support such conclusions [opposing lesbian and gay parenthood]. On page 134 of the book you cite in your piece, I wrote, ‘What we do know is that there is no reason for concern about the development or psychological competence of children living with gay fathers. It is love that binds relationships, not sex.’ “

Prof. Carol Gilligan, a University Professor at NYU, asked Dobson to refrain from ever quoting her again and demanded an apology for “twisting” her work. She continued:

“[T]here is nothing in my research that would lead you to draw the stated conclusions you did in the Time article. My work in no way suggests same-gender families are harmful to children or can’t raise these children to be as healthy and well adjusted as those brought up in traditional households.”

The fact that Dobson and his allies feel compelled to buttress their opposition to sexual minority families with misleading and false claims about scientific data may reveal the inherently limited appeal of their religious and political arguments. I suspect that most Americans intuitively understand the conclusion that Dr. Charlotte Patterson reached after reviewing the relevant scientific research:

“More important to youth than the gender of their parent’s partner is the quality of daily interaction and the strength of relationships with the parents they have.”

Or, as Dr. Pruett tried to explain to James Dobson, “It is love that binds relationships, not sex.”

Mary Cheney’s parents seem to get this. On December 7, the New York Times quoted a spokesperson as saying the Vice-President and his wife are “looking forward with eager anticipation” to their new grandchild’s birth.

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Update (December 18, 2006). Wayne Besen has posted a video interview on YouTube in which Dr. Carol Gilligan discusses her reaction to Dobson’s Time article.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.