Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pediatricians Agree: Marriage Equality is Good for Kids

Just today the American Academy of Pediatrics officially came out in support of marriage equality for same-sex couples. And what business does the AAP have making pronouncements on this controversial social issue? Well, their business. Marriage equality is good for children.

The argument is really very simple: As any conservative will tell you, a stable family is good for the welfare of children. As any conservative will tell you, marriage promotes family stability. From these two conservative premises--premises that every faculty member at Liberty University is likely to wholeheartedly endorse--it follows that marriage equality is good for those children being raised by same-sex couples.

Well, sure, a critic will respond. All else being equal this would follow. But all else is not equal.

Isn't it? It might not be if there were something seriously harmful about being raised by same-sex parents. In that case, same-sex marriage would normalize something that is inherently bad for kids--rendering a harmful situation more common. But the AAP points out that, according to the scientific research, being parented by a same-sex couple does not have a negative effect on healthy development. Here's how they put it  in their press release describing the policy:

 A great deal of scientific research documents there is no cause-and-effect relationship between parents’ sexual orientation and children’s well-being, according to the AAP policy. In fact, many studies attest to the normal development of children of same-gender couples when the child is wanted, the parents have a commitment to shared parenting, and the parents have strong social and economic support. Critical factors that affect the normal development and mental health of children are parental stress, economic and social stability, community resources, discrimination, and children’s exposure to toxic stressors at home or in their communities -- not the sexual orientation of their parents. 

Here, of course, is where opponents of marriage equality are most likely to challenge the AAP's claims... because opponents of same-sex marriage will likely be able to hunt down studies that purportedly show that, as a class, children raised by same-sex couples have a higher incidence of psychological and social-adjustment problems than one finds in the general population.

Let me be clear about something: I expect that there are such studies. In fact, I believe it is probably true that, as a class, the adult children of same-sex couples face psychological issues at a rate somewhat higher than is found in the general population.

Why? I've already told you why: Family stability is good for children. Marriage is good for stability. And, historically, same-sex couples have been denied access to marriage.

The absurd thing is this: There are negative consequences when a class of families is denied access to the stabilizing effects of marriage. And unscrupulous opponents of marriage equality will not blink twice at citing those negative effects as a reason to continue to withhold marriage rights from same sex couples. "Look!" they'll say. "Studies show that being raised by same-sex couples is bad for kids!"

It happens all the time. Some group is denied equal rights. Their social marginalization has negative effects. And these negative effects are cited as a reason to deny them equal rights. After all, the higher incidence of these negative qualities among the members of the disenfranchised group proves that they can't be trusted with the privileges enjoyed by the rest of society. Right?

Of course not. This fallacy is so common--and so routinely used to perpetuate social prejudice--that I think it ought to be given a name. Let's call it the fallacy of justifying a practice by treating it as the solution to the problems it causes (or the JAPBTIATSTTPIC fallacy for short). Okay, so I'm not good at coming up with names for fallacies. Sue me.

There are other, equally fallacious bases on which the AAP's position is likely to be challenged. One that I've already talked about on this blog relates to studies that purportedly show that children do best, all else being equal, when they are raised by their biological mothers and fathers. Even if we grant that this is true, what follows? Apparently, what follows is that any married heterosexual couple that adopts a child should have their marriage immediately annulled for the sake of the children.

Or maybe not. But hopefully you see the problem. Children with adoptive parents are better off if those parents are married--even if it's true, in general statistical terms, that children are best off (all else being equal) with both of their biological parents. Children being raised by one biological parent and his/her same-sex partner are better off if those parents are married--even if it is true, in general statistical terms, that children are best off (all else being equal) with both of their biological parents.

Of course, I should note that all else is not always equal. The most important thing isn't genetic relatedness but love, care, stability, nurture, affirmation, know, the stuff that makes for good parents. Happily married biological parents with these parenting qualities don't typically lose their kids to gay couples. If gay couples are allowed to marry, happily married biological parents with these parenting qualities will not start losing their kids to the newly married gay couples.

In short, not much follows from the premise that, all else being equal, children do best when raised by their biological parents. Legalizing same-sex marriage will not result in children who would be raised by loving biological parents finding themselves shuffled off to same-sex couples instead. What it will result in is children who are raised by same-sex couples enjoying the stabilizing effects that marriage brings to their families.

It may also result in fewer doomed heterosexual marriages in which one party is gay but, longing for marriage and family, looks for it with someone he or she can't fall in love with. How often, in a society where same-sex couples are denied marriage and social recognition as a family unit, do gays and lesbians deny their own sexuality and form such unwise marriages? How often are children born into them?

The chance to form a socially-recognized family unit that harmonizes with one's sexuality will reduce the motives to form one that doesn't. This is good for kids.

It seems to me that the most honest argument available to those who oppose the AAP's new policy statement is this: Legalizing same-sex marriage will normalize it, resulting in more kids growing up thinking that there's nothing wrong with it. Note that this doesn't mean that more kids will grow up to have a homosexual orientation. Whatever the causes of sexual orientation, they aren't the same as what causes one's moral beliefs about the legitimacy of people acting in accord with that orientation.

Of course, if more people think there's nothing wrong with acting on a homosexual orientation, then fewer gays and lesbians will suppress their sexuality. Fewer will struggle to remain celibate based on the belief that any romantic, loving relationship they pursue would be inherently sinful. And if the basis for the normalization of homosexuality is that the institution of marriage is expanded to encompass same-sex couples, then more gay and lesbians will grow up to embrace their sexuality and pursue it in terms of the model of monogamy and fidelity that marriage lifts up. Fewer will shamefully act out in bathroom stalls, as if their sexuality were an evil to be resisted until, in furtive moments of weakness, they fall prey to temptation. Instead, they'll be at home, snuggled up on their sofas with their husbands and wives, watching the newest installment of Downton Abbey.

If you think there's something inherently wrong with homosexual relationships, you'll presumably find these outcomes undesirable. You'll think it bad if kids grow up thinking gays and lesbians should be free to pursue love with someone they can love on just the same terms as heterosexuals.

But in that case, couching this objection in the language of "bad for children" is misleading. That language suggests an outcome of psychological dysfunction--more people in the world who wrestle with depression or self-destructive behaviors or difficulties forming close attachments--rather than an outcome of more people in the world who disagree with your moral convictions.

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