Senator Franken Gets a Laugh He Didn’t Deserve

by Glenn T. Stanton

Both Sen. Al Franken and Lawrence O’Donnell had a bit of fun yesterday with my longtime colleague Tom Minnery, senior vice president for public policy at Focus on the Family, for his testimony before Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Judiciary Committee on the subject of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Tom was making the case that marriage is worth defending against radical redefinition via androgynous experimentation. One of the pieces of evidence he presented was a December 2010 HHS/CDC study on how family formation impacts child well-being.

The report’s main finding was that “children in nuclear families were generally less likely than children in non-nuclear families to be in good, fair, or poor health.” Thus, Minnery reported, according to this study — and the 70-plus other published, mainstream academic studies he presented to the committee — children do better when raised by their own mother and father than when raised in other family structures.

Was this a wild, irresponsible, and deceptive claim? Senator Franken thought so. He asked Minnery how the study defined “nuclear family.” Taken a bit aback by such a seemingly obvious question, but not having committed the entire text of the study to memory, Minnery answered that he assumed it meant a child and his mother and father. (Google the phrase “nuclear family” and see if you find any definition from a serious source different from what Minnery “assumed.”)

Senator Franken corrected Minnery, to knee-slapping laughter from the audience, by citing the study’s definition: “A nuclear family consist of one or more children living with two parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all children in the family.”

True enough — no overt mention of mommies and daddies there. The good senator then lectured my friend, asking whether we could really trust anything he said, since he had so wrongly interpreted what was plainly clear.

But is Senator Franken really right and Minnery deceptively wrong?

Politico wisely contacted the author of the HHS study for her take:

“Sen. Franken is right,” the lead author of the study told POLITICO. The survey did not exclude same-sex couples, said Debra L. Blackwell, Ph.D., nor did it exclude them from the “nuclear family” category provided their family met the study’s definition.

A slam dunk for Senator Franken, right? This is a very serious point on a very serious social and national question before a very serious body of deeply consequential deliberation, so let’s put some other bare facts into the mix for further clarification.


— This HHS/CDC report does not anywhere explain that same-sex couples were included in this study. It makes no mention of same-sex couples anywhere in the text. So it was quite reasonable, based on an honest, straightforward reading of the study and the universal definition of what a nuclear family is, that it didn’t include same-sex couples.

— When Senator Franken “checked the study,” he did not read anywhere in there that it included same-sex couples. It is not there for him to read.

— If the study had included same-sex families, that would have been a very important strength of the study, given the new and political nature of such families. Why didn’t the author explain this important point to her readers?

— Ask 100 leading sociologists to read the study from first word to last and ask them to explain its conclusion. Most of them would conclude exactly what Minnery concluded, given the text itself.

— The author of the study only told Politico that same-sex couples weren’t “excluded”. A curious choice of words. She didn’t say it included any, just that it didn’t exclude them, and the Politico story offered no further explanation. Even if the study hadn’t examined a single same-sex family, her statement would still be absolutely true. Sounds like a weasel word to me.

But if the study did indeed include same-sex couples in the study sample, Senator Franken is still missing a very critical point.

— The study looked at American families from 2001 to 2007. This would mean that only same-sex couples from Massachusetts could have been considered in the study, as the second and third states to legalize same-sex marriage (California and Connecticut) did so in mid- and late 2008. During the years of this study, only the Bay State was in play. Nothing near a nationally representative sample.

— To be included in the study’s definition of “nuclear family,” as Senator Franken claims they are, these same-sex couples would have to be married and both the biological parents of the children of the home, obviously impossible for same-sex couples, or the family would have to include children who were the adopted child of both adults. This trims the number of qualifying same-sex “nuclear” homes way, way down!

— Across the board, only 2 percent of children in the entire U.S. are adopted and not all of these live in two-parent families, as required by this study criteria.

This means that, even if same-sex couples were included in the study sample, the number of same-sex families qualifying for inclusion in the “nuclear” category would have been absolutely minuscule compared with the 99.999 percent of nuclear families in the study that were indeed mom-and-dad families, just as Minnery carefully explained in his testimony.

Lawrence O’Donnell said in his comments on the story last night, “With testimony like that, one starts to wonder, will any facts matter at all in this debate?” Good question, Larry. Will we give this national and very deeply human issue the seriousness it deserves rather than assuming that Judiciary Committee “gotcha” zingers from comedians-turned-politicians are the same as serious discourse and deliberation?

Many of us are still waiting.

— Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and a research fellow at the Institute of Marriage and Family. He is also author of the recent book Secure Daughters, Confident Sons: How Parents Guide Their Children into Authentic Masculinity and Femininity.

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