Barack Obama made headlines during his first months in office by loudly “reversing” several Bush administration policies. The new president announced that he would close the Guantanamo detention facility, “reset” relations with Russia, and discontinue interrogation by torture. But Gitmo remains open, relations with Russia are worse, and the Bush administration had already abandoned torture, including waterboarding, years before Obama took office.
In his Inaugural Address, President Obama declared that he would “restore science to its rightful place” when making federal government policy. Weeks later, on March 9, 2009, he reversed Bush’s restrictive rules governing embryonic stem cell research. At that time, Obama promised that his administration would henceforth rely upon “facts,” not “ideology,” whenever scientific knowledge was relevant to his government’s actions. He even issued an executive order to institutionalize the integrity of his administration’s reliance upon scientific research.
It is debatable whether President Obama has lived up to his promise to replace “ideology” with scientific “facts” in some of the domains he specifically mentioned, such as climate change and protection of endangered species. But in one of the areas he listed—children’s health—he has surely reneged on his promise. Unfortunately for America’s children, consistently promoting their genuine well-being would interfere with the president’s ideological war on traditional sexual morality.
The president’s lawyers have argued for years in courts across the country that one of the administration’s most divisive domestic proposals—the Health and Human Services contraception and abortifacient “mandate” for all females of childbearing age, including my own teenage daughter—was justified by a “compelling state interest” in meeting the unmet needs of women who lacked effective access to these services. These lawyers eventually conceded, however, that the government had conducted no empirical studies whatsoever to support their claim, and could cite no evidence for it. This startling admission, along with other evidence, amply supports the suspicion that the chief goal of the mandate was ideological and not empirical. Its purpose is to utterly normalize contraception and early abortion by insinuating it into the benefits package of all American workers, including those who work for religious employers.
For years, administration lawyers argued for “gay rights,” including same-sex marriage, on the basis that sexual orientation was an inborn characteristic, and that it was contrary to our constitutional traditions to treat anyone adversely due to a trait over which one had no control or choice. In his 2011 letter to Congress announcing that the administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, for instance, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that “a growing scientific consensus accepts that sexual orientation is a characteristic that is immutable.” That claim was unsupported by scientific evidence when Holder made it. That claim is certainly false, as a recent review of the scientific literature by Clifford Rosky and Lisa Diamond (neither a friend of traditional sexual ethics) conclusively shows.
Even so, in April 2015 the president called for an end to what he called “conversion” therapies for same-sex attracted youths. In fact, the president would ban a lot more than any sexual orientation change regimen. He would effectively make it illegal for a psychologist or psychiatrist to discuss with anyone under eighteen the conflicts between his or her sexual feelings and that person’s own long-term goals and interests. The president would brush aside a teen’s expressed desire to develop stable heterosexuality. He would ignore overwhelming scientific evidence that the vast majority (80-90 percent) of teenage boys and more than half of teenage girls who report same-sex attractions (and in some cases, a homosexual or lesbian identity) turn out by age twenty-five or so to be peacefully heterosexual, in favor of a policy to make professional assistance during these passing difficulties illegal. The president’s policy would entail that the traumas and pathologies that so often underlie these expressions of homosexuality and lesbianism be left untreated, all so that the afflicted youth can be “affirmed” in their self-reported sexual identity.
In this case, the president had much of the scientific establishment behind him, for it too has bought into the ideology of sexual subjectivism and has sought to marginalize those professionals who engage these teens in discussions to get at the root of their issues. In his remarks justifying repression of these professional efforts, Obama relied on the bane of scientific research—the anecdote, salted heavily with gratuitous attributions of a cause-and-effect relationship to coincident facts. Obama cited the case of a transgendered youth who committed suicide, sometime after his parents refused to consent to his “transition” to female. The parents also insisted that he undergo therapy to help him accept his male identity. The president implied that this resistance to “transitioning” to female led this young man to suicide.
It is obvious from a glance at the facts surrounding Joshua “Leelah” Alcorn’s death that he suffered from a variety of psychological difficulties, including depression and deep social alienation. No competent professional—much less the commander-in-chief of the United States—could diagnose the etiology of his suicide.
It is curious that President Obama marshaled support for his opposition to sexual orientation counseling by citing this case of gender dysphoria. The imagined connection seems to be that “Leelah” Alcorn was a boy who was attracted to boys, and may have sought to “transition” to female partly in order to become heterosexual. The president’s position is evidently that a boy who wishes to become attracted to girls should not be allowed professional help to do so, but that a boy who wishes to actually become a girl should have access to all the professional help he desires.
Now the Obama administration has gone all in on its pro-transgender ideology. The federal government recently sued North Carolina and threatens it—and school districts and state agencies across the nation—with draconian penalties unless they toe the administration’s line on how to treat teens who believe that they were “assigned” the wrong sex at birth. The administration has decreed that civil rights provisions about “sex” discrimination must be informed by a definition of “sex” dictated not by the facts of nature but by the self-interpretation of the relevant fourteen-year-old. The administration would thus require every municipal recipient of federal funds to make the girls’ restroom available to boys who “self-identify” as girls. No accommodation of these troubled teens short of that—say, by making sure that there is a unisex restroom readily available—will do.
The basis for this uncompromising stance is clearly that using the restroom of choice makes these conflicted boys feel like they are being accepted as girls, and that this is a happy outcome for the afflicted teen.
It is not. There is no scientific evidence that treating boys as girls solves these teens’ genuine, and usually serious, psychological and emotional problems, as the research and clinical experience of Dr. Paul McHugh (among others) reliably shows. Gender dysphoria—unease with one’s sex as male or female—deserves to be treated compassionately and competently. But affirming the desire of anyone suffering from it to be treated as if he is a she, and vice versa, leaves the emotional and psychological problems hidden behind the claim untreated. (And in no case is sex-reassignment surgery ever medically indicated.) The compassionate and professionally competent approach to treating those with gender dysphoria is to help them to solve their underlying problems, and so to help them to come to live peacefully as the male or female that God created them.
President Obama has not said that science is to be the alpha and the omega of government policy. Nor should he: science by itself does not have the capacity to generate the moral norms, including norms of justice, that are essential to finally justifying any purposeful human action. But science very often generates information and insights vital to deliberation and choice of social policy. This is true with regard to what today might be called “adolescent sexual health.” And in spite of his triumphalist advertisement of fidelity to scientific fact, Obama has sacrificed the well-being of our nation’s youth on the altar of ideology.
Gerard V. Bradley is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Law School and a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, where he is Chair of the Academic Committee of the Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution.