Don’t Let Social Science Raise Your Children (debating Justin Martytr)

It’s finally time to return to my argument with Justin Martyr over procreation policy.  [Quick recap of the story so far: Justin was debating gay marriage, I butted in, Justin responded (twice), I answered his challenge, he responded.  Though you can certainly follow along by clicking only those last two links.]

My procreation rubric

The last time we spoke, I was outlining why I though four hypothetical possible procreation plans were moral or immoral.  Using my responses, Justin generalized my algorithm for evaluating these cases as:

People have a right to procreate under any circumstances they wish unless doing so might realistically compromise the health or autonomy of women.

Not really accurate.  As I stated in the rock star hypothetical, I think it is wrong for women to attempt to have children for the purpose of stabilizing a relationship.  Babies should be an end in themselves, and pursued only as such.  The health and autonomy of women should not be severely compromised in pursuit of this goal.  (I think Justin is reading too much into my objection to a free market in wombs.  Those women are being unduly endangered by their work.  Women may take on more risk for themselves in the pursuit of a child).

Another misreading

I hope the above clears up my thinking a little.  Justin also seemed to misconstrue pragmatism as a double moral standard.  He writes:

It seems to me that Leah holds that lesbians can get a sperm donor (because sperm donation is essentially riskless), but that gay men cannot hire a surrogate mother (because pregnancy is risky and poverty could force poor women into essentially selling their good health). Is that correct? Gay men must adopt, but lesbians can intentionally procreate?

The division isn’t really between gay men and lesbians at all.  I would also prefer that infertile straight couples adopt rather than use surrogate wombs.  I think the dividing line here is pretty clearly between people who have a working womb and those who don’t.  Justin’s attempt to make this a question of victimizing gay men strikes me as disingenuous.

Now, onto the biggest objection.  Justin stated that my position entirely neglected the good of the child.  He went on to argue that raising children in single-parent homes is intrinsically harmful and that divorcing and remarrying puts children at risk of homicide.  Therefore, he states, my position is criminally negligent.  The commenters on his site, especially March Hare, are doing a pretty good job of picking this apart, but I’d like to have a go.

The limits of social science

Doing research on the effects of divorce and remarriage is really difficult, and Justin continues to overstate the significance of the papers he cites.  When a couple in a difficult marriage considers divorce, their options are to stay together, even with difficulties, or to split up.  Yet the studies Justin cites (particularly this one) seem to think their options were to divorce or to live in a harmonious marriage that had never been tempted to split.  The study in question compares outcomes from divorced families to those of families that stayed together.  In other words, they compare marriages known to have been under severe strain to those that may not have been and find that the unhappy marriages hurt children.  Shocking!

A perfect study would take a selection of marriages and randomly require some couples to divorce and some to stay together, regardless of their wishes and then conduct a longitudinal survey.  Obviously, such a study will never be done.  It is possible that there is no good proxy for the effects of divorce in troubled families.  Happily, we’re allowed to make decisions, even without social science to back them up.  After all, it’s reasonable to conjecture that battered women should leave abusive relationships, even in the absence of peer reviewed journals.


The real question is whether it is reasonable for individual single parents, gay couples, remarried couples, etc to decide to have children.  I maintain that it is.  There is no question that it is possible for LGBT families, remarried families, etc to successfully raise children.  The only question Justin is raising is whether they are at a higher relative risk of failing.

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Justin has proof of the answer he’s pushing.  I’m also not sure what level of risk he believes disqualifies a prospective demographic.  It’s certainly true that mothers put their children at a higher risk of death by installing a swimming pool than by introducing a step-father (one of the choices Justin judges to be irresponsible).  Far better to focus on education and community resources for parents than on setting a cut off for possible demographic risk.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Charles

    You are also overlooking the fact that he is ascribing rights to unconceived children. Since they don't exist yet, as conception has not occurred, they cannot have rights. You can only weigh the rights of the child AFTER this has occurred. Meaning that you can take a situation and say 'if I were to conceive I would be creating a child in a situation where its rights would be hurt' – but you can't presume that you are increasing the risk of death to a child that doesn't exist. Therefore you can't compare the rights of a non-existent child (no rights, since there is no person) and one in a family that is or is not divorcing.He is wrapping himself up in this logical fallacy because otherwise he doesn't have a logically consistent position to take. (I have not read EVERYTHING in your entire debate at this point and so concede that I may be missing some earlier points)