Thursday, June 14, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and Children

There is an argument against same-sex marriage that's been around for awhile, and argument which insists that same-sex marriage is bad for children. This argument has received some new life recently, thanks in large measure to the results of a new study by UT Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Last night I saw a teaser for a local (Oklahoma City) news report about the study, and it made my skin crawl. The voice-over asked, "Are children of gay parents more likely to commit suicide?" And then it made reference to the new study...and said that gay rights activists are up in arms about it. The effect the teaser conveyed was clear: Scientific research says that kids being raised by gay and lesbian parents are psychologically damaged by it, and the gay community doesn't like the facts because it hurts their cause.

The news report itself, which I couldn't pay close attention to because I was hounding the kids into bed at the time, seemed more balanced than the teaser--but like most local news reports, it couldn't provide a detailed analysis of how the study was conducted, its limitations, and whether the hyped implications really follow.

In fact, this study doesn't show what the teaser question suggested, nor does it support any of the more modest claims opponents of same-sex marriage want to draw from it. In a recent New Republic piece, John Corvino--a philosophical colleague at Wayne State and the co-author with Maggie Gallagher of Debating Same-Sex Marriage--exposes with great clarity the problems with the Regnerus study.

But the problems with the "bad for children" argument run deeper than a flawed study. It would be a failed argument even if the Regnerus study wasn't flawed.

One difficulty with assessing the "bad for children" argument is that those who put it forward rarely fill in all the premises. They start with something like this: "Children raised by same-sex couples do worse in general (in terms of adult psychological health) than do children raised by their biological mothers and fathers in a 'traditional' family." And then they conclude that we should oppose same-sex marriage because it's bad for children.

How, exactly, do you get from that starting point to that conclusion?

In fact, the argument is going to be pretty complicated. To see why, consider the following analogy. Suppose we can demonstrate that children raised by adoptive parents do worse in general (in terms of their adult psychological health) than do children raised by their biological mothers and fathers. Can we conclude from this that adoption ought to be outlawed? Of course not. To get to that conclusion, we'd have to introduce a bunch of very dubious premises.

First of all, it is clear that adoptive parents can and do raise healthy, well-adjusted children. If there's anything that might reasonably be claimed, it's that being raised by biological parents is better all else being equal. If a child has the option of being raised by their biological parents or by adoptive parents who are in all other respects equally competent and capable parents, then there might be evidence to suggest that biological parents are the better choice. But to get from this to a prohibition on adoption, we'd need to assume a whole lot.

We'd have to assume, first of all, that when adoption is allowed there are children who would have been raised by their biological parents who are instead raised by adoptive parents. Now this assumption might actually be true. If adoption is outlawed, then children who come out of biological families characterized by extreme parental negligence or abuse who might otherwise have ended up adopted by a loving family would never end up in adoptive homes--and some of them might, by default, remain in the abusive homes. But this just goes to show that a case against adoption would also need to assume that the children who would have stayed with their biological parents had adoption been outlawed would, as a general rule, have thereby been better off.

And this seems clearly false. If, given a prohibition on adoption, there are children who remain with their biological families who might otherwise have been adopted, it seems clear that these are precisely the same children who in general would have been better off getting adopted. And this is true even if, in a general comparison of biological families and adoptive ones, the children raised in the former do a bit better on average in terms of standard measures of psychological health. To put it simply, the biological families that lose their kids to foster care and eventual adoption are a "special class" of biological families--a special class that doesn't share the childrearing outcomes of biological families in general.

And then there's the simple fact that having in place a system of adoption provides important social goods--it provides homes for children who would otherwise have no family at all. And this fact would seem to justify a policy of adoption even if it should turn out that such a policy sometimes results in children ending up adopted who would have been better off had they stayed in with their biological families.

In fact, it seems likely that any system that allows adoption will occasionally have such a result. Suppose a woman gives up a child for adoption on the assumption she can't care for it--an assumption based on the belief that the biological father won't stick around. But suppose that this woman eventually ends up marrying the biological father and forming a happy life with him. And suppose the adopted child ends up in a dysfunctional home. Had adoption been outlawed, the child would have ended up with its biological parents and would have been better off. But does the fact that such cases exist justify outlawing adoption? Obviously not. The overall social benefits of having adoption in place warrant legal adoption even if, sometimes, had adoption been illegal, a specific child would have ended up with a better life.

This adoption analogy helps make it clear, I think, that the "bad for children" argument against same-sex marraige has to make numerous assumptions. If these assumptions were made explicit, here's how I think the argument would look:

Premise 1: Children raised by same-sex couples are less psychologically healthy in general than are children raised by their married biological mothers and fathers (hereafter, 'traditional biological families').

Premise 2: There would be more children raised by same-sex couples were same-sex marriage legal than there are when same-sex marriage is illegal.

Premise 3: If, by virtue of legalizing same-sex marriage, more children came to be raised by same-sex couples, at least some of those children would have been raised in traditional biological families had same-sex marriage remained illegal.

Premise 4: With respect to these children, the traditional biological families they would have been raised in (in the absence of legal same-sex marriage) would NOT be a special class of 'traditional biological families' with child-rearing outcomes on average worse than the child-rearing outcomes of traditional biological families in general. 

Premise 5: Even if (as seems probable) legalizing same-sex marriage would result in some sames-sex couples already raising children getting married who would otherwise have remained unmarried, this result would produce no compensating positive impact on the psychological health of their children. That is, any positive impact on the children in these families would be outweighed by the negative impact of children being raised by same-sex couples who would otherwise have been raised in traditional biological families.

Premise 6: Legalizing same-sex marriage would not help ameliorate conditions damaging to the psychological health of anyone else in society, or in any other way generate positive social outcomes, or it would not do so enough to outweigh the impact of more children being raised by same sex couples who would otherwise have been raised in traditional biological families.

Sub-Conclusion: Therefore, legalizing same-sex marriage would have a negative impact on the psychological health of some children, without there being any comparable positive psychological effect on other children or any other compensating social good (in short, without any comparable positive benefits).

Premise 7: If legalizing same-sex marriage negatively impacts the psychological health of some children without any comparable positive benefits, then it should remain illegal.

Final Conclusion: Same-sex marriage should remain illegal.

Now, once we've unpacked the argument in this way, with all its hidden premises, we see that it's a pretty lousy argument. Simply put, the argument sucks.

The fact is that same-sex couples can and do raise healthy, well-adjusted children--and that remains true even if, in general, traditional biological families are the best arrangement. And it seems clear that children raised by same-sex couples would benefit from the social and legal supports of marriage, supports which would increase the likelihood that their same-sex parents would stay together and provide a long-lasting, stable child-rearing environment. And it seems clear that, were same-sex marriage legal, the same-sex couples raising children would not generally be raising kids who would otherwise have been raised by loving biological parents, if only same-sex marriage had remained illegal.

There might, however, be a few cases like this--cases in which children are raised by same-sex parents who might have been raised in "traditional biological families" had same-sex marraige remained illegal. But if there are such rare cases, what would they look like? My guess is they'd be cases involving an ill-advised marriage between a gay man and a straight woman, or a straight man and a lesbian--a marriage entered into out of a misplaced belief that this will provide the "cure" for the one party's homosexuality. I can imagine that the legalization of same-sex marriage might help to precipitate the end of some marriages that look like this--and in some of these marriages, there will be children.

But here's the thing. If same-sex marriage were legal, it's likely there'd be far fewer ill-advised marriages of this sort. Gays and lesbians would feel less need to hide from their homosexuality (by entering into heterosexual marriage) if same-sex relationships were normalized and socially accepted. Fewer children would come into the world in the context of a marriage in which one party has no romantic feelings for the other, where one party has to fantasize about someone else in order to function sexually, while the other party senses the distance, the lack of authentic intimacy, and is hurt by it. In other words, fewer children would be born into marriages virtually destined for unhappiness.

It is unclear whether children are better off being raised by their biological parents in such unhapy marriages than they would be were the parents to divorce and find partners with whom they could actually sustain genuine romantic intimacy. It is unclear whether these unhappy marriages are more likely to endure until the kids grow up were same-sex marriage to remain illegal. What is clear is that there would be fewer such marriages were we to legalize same-sex marriage. And fewer such marriages clearly is good for children.


  1. This is a nice and interesting post!

  2. I am grateful that I come across to your blog. This topic is really interesting. For me, when it comes to having a family the children is the most important aspect to consider. A family without a children is null and void I mean I can say that life is boring without them. In some cases like this it's really up to the parents how they will brought up their children. I don't find any problem to the same-sex couples who wants to raise children as long as they can sustain the needs and wants for them the better.