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Ersatz science does not help inform debate about social policy

The debate in society about marriage equality for same-sex couples has many facets. Until now though, health arguments have not been to the fore. The Melbourne Herald Sun ran with a story about some doctors who have founded a group called Doctors for the Family to lobby against amending the Marriage Act. It isn’t easy to find the submission they have made to the Senate Committee which sets out their objections but you can find it linked to here.

I have to say up front that it seems clear to me that their submission relies heavily on the social authority of the medical profession, as it is very thin on health-related evidence. The first piece of research they cite is this report which is commissioned study by a Professor of Law. It is quite evidently NOT a piece of peer-reviewed evidence. I also note that this report was commissioned and funded by the Australian Christian Lobby, so its appearance in a submission with a supposedly evidence-based healthcare approach raises the reasonable suspicion that Doctors for the Family is just another of the many religious groups which oppose the amendment on ideological grounds.

The next study they cite is this one. I only have access to the Abstract but it sounds like it is a study comparing teens living with step-parents with those living with both their biological parents. There is no mention of gay parents in the Abstract. The quote included in the Senate submission looks like it has been cherry-picked from a study which is not really about same-sex parents. This is pretty disingenuous. From a technical point of view, this study is a post hoc interrogation of a large database, and therefore is a retrospective cohort study. Such studies cannot be used to do anything other than determining correlations, and generating hypotheses for further study. They are not the final word about anything.

Most of the other references were to news stories or opinion pieces, apart from the truly spectacular selective quoting of some US research which was presumably done because it allowed them to quote alarming rates of sexually transmitted infections amongst gay men in that country. Oddly though, the submission refers to the press release, not the original paper. Trying to use this data to generalise about the health risks of actually being in a stable, loving and long-term relationship with a same-sex partner simply does not follow. For one thing, Doctors for the Family seem happy to completely ignore the cataclysmic rates of HIV among African heterosexual men and women. For another, they also seem content to ignore the significant body of research which has already been done into gay parenting. The consensus view is that same-sex couples make no better or worse parents than any other type of family arrangements.

This appears to constitute the entire ‘medical’ argument against marriage equality. No doctor, nurse, physio or in fact any science-based practitioner would accept a new treatment based on such a poorly argued presentation of research. Apart from the obvious appearance of ideological bias in using a non-medical, non-peer-reviewed piece of research funded by a lobby group as a primary source, the other studies presented make no tenable case whatsoever that there are health risks to either the same-sex parents or their offspring.

The submissions presented by the Australian Medical Student Association (AMSA) and by Psychologists for Marriage Equality (PME) are much better analyses of the health implications which are relevant to the debate. Changing a social institution as fundamental as marriage requires careful consideration of all relevant information. It is hard enough to be across all the things you need to know to have an opinion without having to see poor science masquerading as credible information. They have a perfect right to their own opinions but they have to make do with the same scientific facts as everybody else. Doctors for the Family are trying to hijack the credibility of science, while being disingenuous about their religious beliefs.