Same-sex parenting: What do we know?

Comments on a recent post about an article in the Southern Poverty Law Center have drifted toward a discussion about same-sex parenting. Commenters noted that several professional associations (APA, Pediatrics group) have policies which endorse gay parenting. Other commenters have questioned the wisdom of such endorsements citing research based concerns.

So here is the first of a multi-part series summarizing what I can find on the subject. I am not as aware of this literature as I am some other aspects of social policy so I do not claim that this is exhaustive but I do want to put up some links and get our conversations based on something besides anecdote and irrelevant studies.

Let me start with a link to a 2005 article by William Meezan and Jonathan Rauch, titled, Gay Marriage, Same-Sex Parenting, and America’s Children. It is a serious effort by advocates of gay rights to examine the literature. They find much contention among bonafide scholars about the quality of the research. For instance, they note

The significance of this body of evidence is a matter of contention, to say the least. Steven Nock, a prominent scholar reviewing the literature in 2001 as an expert witness in a Canadian court case, found it so flawed methodologically that the “only acceptable conclusion at this point is that the literature on this topic does not constitute a solid body of scientific evidence,” and that “all of the articles I reviewed contained at least one fatal flaw of design or execution. . . . Not a single one was conducted according to generally accepted standards of scientific research.” Two equally prominent scholars, Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, vigorously disputed the point: “He is simply wrong to say that all of the studies published to date are virtually worthless and unscientific. . . . If the Court were to accept Professor Nock’s primary criticisms of these studies, it would have to dismiss virtually the entire discipline of psychology.”

Dismiss psychology? Stacey and Biblarz say that like it would be a bad thing…

Meezan and Rauch identify only four studies that meet sufficient criteria for examining claims about gay parenting. I encourage readers to review their summaries. My impression is that the studies are suggestive, they are far from a basis for making policy recommendations. Meezan and Rauch acknowledge as much when they write

We believe that both sides of that argument are right, at least partially. The evidence provides a great deal of information about the particular families and children studied, and the children now number more than a thousand. They are doing about as well as children normally do. What the evidence does not provide, because of the methodological difficulties we outlined, is much knowledge about whether those studied are typical or atypical of the general population of children raised by gay and lesbian couples. We do not know how the normative child in a same-sex family compares with other children. To make the same point a little differently, those who say the evidence shows that many same-sex parents do an excellent job of parenting are right. Those who say the evidence falls short of showing that same-sex parenting is equivalent to opposite-sex parenting (or better, or worse) are also right.

This seems to be about as good a summary as I could write. We have precious little to go on and I believe social conservatives are correct to say we are not inspired to make national policy based on the positive results obtained thus far. Advocates of same-sex parenting, Meezan and Rauch go on to suggest a research strategy

In particular, the clustering in four neighboring states of all three kinds of arrangement— same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, civil unions in Vermont and Connecticut, and neither in New Hampshire—offers a near ideal natural laboratory. A rigorous study of how children fare when they are raised in these various arrangements and environments would not be easy to design and execute, and it would require a considerable amount of time and money; but the knowledge gained would make the debate over gay marriage better lit and perhaps less heated, to the benefit of all sides of the argument.

Although some would never agree, I believe there is some merit to this suggestion. Doing such a study would not interfere with the ability of advocates on both sides to make their cases on ideological grounds, nor would people who are not in favor of gay parenting be required to change their moral views in order to acknowledge that such arrangements exist and should be reviewed. 

Now what do you think? What are the promises and pitfalls of such a study?

In beginning this series, I hope that commenters will add specific references to studies which I should consider adding to future posts.