Deakin academic Michael Vagg has a piece in The Conversation today in which he explains just where the group “Doctors for the Family” gleaned their “evidence” that the healthiest type of family in which to raise children is heterosexual. It comes as no surprise to find that one study on which they base their opinions was funded by the Australian Christian Lobby. Other points they make in their submission to the Senate inquiry into marriage equality are blatantly cherry picked, and bear little if no relation to heterosexual relationships in this country.
As Vagg observes, while there have been vigorous protests against same-sex marriage for a long time, health arguments such as this one are a new weapon in the arsenal of the religious right.
The manner in which the group’s submission has been reported in the media is unreassuring. For example, ABC Breakfast news led with “Doctors claim …” Not a group of doctors, but doctors. This implies an authority that the submission completely lacks, just because it’s been written by “doctors.” In fact, when you look at Vagg’s piece it quickly becomes clear that no researcher worth her salt would accept anything at all about the doctors’ claims.
Who are these doctors? You can read about them here.
In Australia the child abuse statistics are appalling. Children are physically, sexually and emotionally abused by adults and almost all of these abuses occur within the family unit. And guess what? The overwhelming majority of those family units are heterosexual. The heterosexual family can be a highly dangerous and thus unhealthy environment in which to raise children, as at least some of these doctors must surely know.
Vagg concludes his piece thus: “Doctors for the Family are trying to hijack the credibility of science, while being disingenuous about their religious beliefs.” I’m glad for his sake he said “disingenuous,” and not “deceptive and duplicitous” and he didn’t call anyone a Baptist, probably avoiding defamation threats, unlike me. Those threats against me by Melinda Tankard Reist still haven’t been withdrawn, by the way. I suspect Reist intends to leave them hanging over my head until January next year.
I can’t help but notice that the concealing of religious motivations is on the increase among believers trying to impose their faith agenda on a secular society via the back door. There was a bit of an outcry when I claimed Reist’s religious beliefs were relevant to her lobbying, and many cried “ad hominem!”
However, the ad hominem is not always fallacious. There are arguments for making what’s know as a circumstantial ad hominem. There are those, such as eminent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who argue ad hominem reasoning can be essential to understanding moral issues. Arguments that question the opponent’s possible dogmatic bias, for example, or vested and conflicted interests, are legitimate critical responses.
The circumstantial ad hominem is an allegation of bias, and intended to serve as a warning that the arguments need to be scrutinized. Allegations are just that. They aren’t proof that an argument is incorrect or flawed, and are not used as proof: they merely raise legitimate questions about possible bias.
Making an allegation is not a biased act. Conflict of interest of all kinds can affect objectivity. It is perfectly acceptable to allege a conflict of interest when there are grounds to do so. It isn’t conducive to free speech and healthy debate for such allegations to be prevented, or silenced by dismissing them as fallacious.
The religious beliefs of “Doctors for the Family” are entirely relevant to their lobbying against same-sex marriage. Their scientific claims are bizarre, and they use the authority invested in their profession by the community to substantiate what is at best, very sloppy research and argument, and at worst, cherry-picked, highly manipulative argument to achieve a goal that is faith-based in origin. We have the right to know where they are coming from, and why, before we end up like this: