Do children raised by a same sex couple turn out better or worse as adults compared to children raised by both their biological parents? That's obviously a question with important implications for gay adoption and for gay marriage. It is just as obviously a question with heavy political freight.
Sociologist Mark Regnerus published a study in Social Science Research that attempted to improve upon previous answers to the question by expanding sample size and refining methodology. Here is Charles C. W. Cooke's summary of the result from the National Review.
Ultimately, Mark Regnerus set out to answer the question of whether children who have parents in a same-sex relationship experience disadvantages when compared with children raised by their biological, married parents. The answer, contra the zeitgeist, appears to be a resounding yes. Children with a parent in a same-sex relationship "underperform" in almost every category. Some of these differences may be relatively benign — whether one voted in the last presidential election, for example — but most are decidedly not.
One deficit is particularly worrying: Less than 2 percent of children from intact, biological families reported experiencing sexual abuse of some nature, but that figure for children of same-sex couples is 23 percent. Similarly disturbing is that 14 percent of children from same-sex couples have spent some time in foster care, compared with around 2 percent of the American population at large. Arrest, drug experimentation, and unemployment rates were all higher among children from same-sex families.
Social Conservatives will surely see that answer as a vindication. It is far from clear, however, what this result means. As is the case with many important findings in social science, where the data is good it is often difficult to determine precisely what question has been answered.
William Saletan at Slate objects that the sample was skewed.
The survey went on to ask: "From when you were born until age 18 … did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?" If the respondent said yes, he was put in the "gay father" (GF) or "lesbian mother" (LM) category, regardless of subsequent answers. But if he said no, a later question about the relationship between "your biological parents" was used to classify him as the product of an "intact biological family" (IBF) or of an "adopted," "divorced," "stepfamily," or "single-parent" household. In other words, broken families were excluded from the IBF category but included in the GF and LM categories.
But there is an obvious reason for that parsing of the sample. Again from Cooke:
The first thing that Regnerus found is that gay households with children are located in the same geographical areas as the households of straight couples raising kids. Contrary to stereotypes, there is no real concentration of children where gays tend to live en masse. For example, as there are few children in San Francisco's households overall, there are also few children living with gays in San Francisco. In fact, Georgia is the state that has the most children living with same-sex couples. Despite being allegedly less gay-friendly, Middle America is very well represented in the gay-couple-with-child demographic. And consistent with general trends, Latino gay couples have more children than do white gay couples.
Regnerus found that children in the study rarely spent their entire childhoods in the households of their gay parent and partner. Only two of the 175 subjects who reported having a mother in a lesbian relationship spent their whole childhood with the couple, and no children studied spent their entire childhood with two gay males. The numbers drop off pretty sharply as time progressed, too: For example, 57 percent of children spent more than four months with lesbian parents, but only 23 percent spent more than three years.
There are just very few examples of children raised from infancy in stable, single parent households, far too few to generalize from. Again from Saletan:
What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people. But that finding isn't meaningless. It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights. We need to study Regnerus' sample and fix the mistakes we made 20 or 40 years ago. No more sham heterosexual marriages. No more post-parenthood self-discoveries. No more deceptions. No more affairs. And no more polarization between homosexuality and marriage. Gay parents owe their kids the same stability as straight parents. That means less talk about marriage as a right, and more about marriage as an expectation.
Here is how Cooke put it.
Regnerus's study is a success insofar as it answers the fundamental question of whether children raised by same-sex couples end up differently: Clearly they do, and it does not require a conservative viewpoint to see that "differently" very often means "worse." It is debatable, though, whether this is an indictment of same-sex households or of instability. Indeed, the major takeaway from the report is less an indictment that same-sex households are a negative thing and more an affirmation that intact, biological households are a positive thing. Put simply, if you want to give your children the best start in life, you should have children inside of wedlock and stay together for the duration. But then, we already knew that.
What the study shows is that a stable marriage is the best arrangement for raising children. Saletan thinks that this is a strong argument for legal gay marriage. This strikes me as problematic. There are some obvious reasons why so many persons surveyed come from broken homes. Biologically heterosexual couples can be biologically productive, even if one of the parents is gay; same sex couples cannot. Large gay communities are found in places like San Francisco, where nobody is having children. It is unclear how we will ever get enough same sex couples, married with children, to make a fair sample.
Saletan is dead spot on when he says "Gay parents owe their kids the same stability as straight parents. That means less talk about marriage as a right, and more about marriage as an expectation." As I have argued frequently here, that is the problem with the gay marriage debate. Marriage is not about rights, it's about obligations. So long as that is understood, I am in favor of legal same sex marriage. As far as adoption and custody are concerned, it is really all about the children.