Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Ruth Deech on Civil Partnerships

Last night, Ruth Deech (professor and baroness), delivered an address on civil partnerships at Gresham College (transcript). Nearly the entirety of the speech was given over to an extremely interesting summary of relevant case histories in Britain, Europe, South Africa and elsewhere, showing how we have moved from a legal conception of marriage as heterosexual, procreative and Christian to an extension of many of the same rights to relationships between people who are none of these. Deech adopts a tone of such dispassionate factuality that it is nearly impossible to gauge whether she herself thinks that these changes have gone too far, or not far enough (e.g., should civil partnerships be called marriages?). It is only in the last three paragraphs that she notes ‘two issues in all this which give me unease’. On one of these, I agree: now that ‘biological parenthood, legal and social parenthood’ can diverge in so many ways (adoption, sperm donation, egg donation, ...), birth certificates should, while still respecting anonymity, no longer conflate or force a choice these. However, I do take issue with Deech’s second point, which plays a bit fast and loose with the science, citing inconclusive evidence that appears to have been cherry-picked by a Christian interest group.

Deech’s qualm concerns ‘the removal from the law of the provision ... that when a doctor is considering whether or not to give infertility treatment to a woman, he or she had to consider the welfare of the potential baby, “including the child’s need for a father”’. This is a legitimate concern, but whether it represents a defect in the law ultimately depends on matters of fact. Deech offers two observations in this regard, neither of which I find convincing.

First, she considers message-sending: ‘The removal of the requirement to consider the need for a father is to make a fresh statement that the child does not need a father... It sends a message to men, at a time when many of them feel undermined as providers and parents...’ I find this slightly implausible. Are there really any men who were undecided about whether or not to participate in their children’s lives but who reached a decision once the government changed the law about which names should appear on birth certificates, because this constituted a message, in their eyes, that their involvement was neither expected nor valued? The law, and the brief administrative moment it affects, strike me as so far removed from any actual decisions that parents must reach that it cannot honestly be thought to have any effect or to send any message.

Second, she alludes to ‘a wealth of research showing that children need fathers, not just two parents’. She writes ‘that boys without fathers do worse at school and turn to worse role models’. However, as a bare fact, this is irrelevant to concerns about same sex parenting. Did the study (or studies) in question compare mother-father families with single-motherfamilies? If so, then it tells us nothing about two-parent, same sex families. Moreover, she writes, ‘Research shows that [fathers’] presence gives girls as well as boys advantages in educational and social development’. Again, does the research in question specifically address educational and social development in homosexual versus heterosexual two-parent families, or only in mother-father versus single-motherfamilies? If the latter, then it again tells us nothing about children raised by same-sex parents.

For details of this research, Deech points to This takes one to The Fatherhood Bibliography, which presents 26 pages each containing about 3-4 citations with representative quotations. So, a sizeable but hardly huge body of research (and I haven’t checked whether some works are cited more than once, in different sections). However, the publication, prepared by CARE (‘Making a Christian difference for the sake of the future’), makes no profession of objectivity: it is not a systematic review, deciding, first, what counts as good evidence, and then taking all research, positive and negative, into account in order to reach a balanced conclusion. Instead, its aim is simply to demonstrate the ‘significant amount of research ... showing the importance of fathers’. This is perfectly fine as a motive for publication. However, in order to justify Deech’s concerns, the relevant comparison set is not fathered versus unfathered children, but heterosexual versus homosexual two-parent families.

And in this regard the report is decidedly underwhelming. Only 12 publications are cited. One of them is not a piece of scientific research but the opinion of a French governmental body. Of the remaining 11 cited works, 6 simply say that the evidence does not permit proper conclusions to be drawn, 2 are of dubious relevance, concerning breakdown rates of homosexual versus heterosexual relationships (whether coparenting lesbians break up more than coparenting heterosexuals is irrelevant unless one controls for, e.g., whether the children result from previous partnerships or from a joint decision of both parents), and the remaining 3 point to possible socialization difficulties of children of same sex parents (though nothing that seems to me to be beyond what one would expect of children who might be teased or ostracized because of their minority status).

So, Deech may be right to raise fatherlessness as a point of concern. However, to suggest that CARE’s fatherhood publication provides relevant evidence seems wrong. That said, in the end, she warns only against parenting that ‘cut[s] out all contact with members of the other sex or falsif[ies] the birth registration’. When this is not the case, ‘Tolerance of both types of parenting has to be ensured’. Deech’s careful laying out of the legal steps that have brought us to where we are now seems sure to me to contribute to this tolerance and, like her, I am particularly struck by the eloquent advocacy of South Africa’s Justice Albie Sachs:

‘The exclusion of same sex couples from the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, accordingly, is not a small and tangential inconvenience resulting from a few surviving relics of societal prejudice destined to evaporate like the morning dew. It represents a harsh if oblique statement by the law that same sex couples are outsiders, and that their need for affirmation and protection of their intimate relations as human beings is somehow less than that of heterosexual couples. It reinforces the wounding notion that they are to be treated as biological oddities, as failed or lapsed human beings who do not fit into normal society, and, as such, do not qualify for the full moral concern and respect that our Constitution seeks to secure for everyone. It signifies that their capacity for love, commitment and accepting responsibility is by definition less worthy of regard than that of heterosexual couples. It should be noted that the intangible damage to same sex couples is as severe as the material deprivation. To begin with they are not entitled to celebrate their commitment to each other in a joyous public event recognised by the law. They are obliged to live in a state of legal blankness in which their unions remain unmarked by the showering of presents and the commemoration of anniversaries so celebrated in our culture. It may be, as the literature suggests, many same sex couples would abjure mimicking or subordinating themselves to heterosexual norms. Others might wish to avoid what they consider the routinisation and commercialisation of their most intimate and personal relationships, and accordingly not seek marriage or its equivalence. Yet what is at issue is not the decision to be taken, but the choice that is available. If heterosexual couples have the option of decising whether to marry or not, so should same sex couples have the choice as whether to seek to achieve a status and a set of entitlements and responsibilities on a par with those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. It follows that, given the centrality attributed to marriage and its consequences in our culture, to deny same sex couples a choice in this respect is to negate their right to self definition in a most profound way.’

No comments:

Post a Comment