Photo: Daily Mail / AP
“Kids from same-sex families fare as well as peers – or better” claims the heading of an article by an Australian academic circulating this week. Children with same-sex attracted parents are “doing well in terms of their overall health”, their “families are getting along really well”, says Simon Crouch. Actually, they are doing “better” than average on those points, but they do “experience stigma”, which explains any “lower scores” on certain measures. So we have to get rid of that stigma somehow…
It’s a familiar story by now, and if this one seems particularly familiar it is because we heard it all a year ago, when interim results from the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (ACHESS)were published with similar upbeat headlines. Dr Crouch, himself an openly homosexual man with twin boys aged 5, and his University of Melbourne team couldn’t wait to tell the good news to a public debating same-sex marriage and adoption and surrogacy.
But, as we noted then, there are several reasons not to be prematurely reassured by this research, let alone use it to support political agendas. Just to refresh your memory, here are some of the points in contention.
“The largest study of its kind”
What kind of study is ACHESS? It is based on a non-random, convenience sample of 315 same-sex attracted adults with a total of 500 children aged 0 to 17. The adults were recruited in the first place through the email lists of organisations such as Gay Dads Australia and the Rainbow Families Council of Victoria, and then through the “gay and lesbian press, flyers at gay and lesbian social and support groups, and investigator attendance at gay and lesbian community events …” People who responded in the first instance also recruited friends.
It’s true that the resulting sample is larger than similar non-random studies and, in particular, has more male participants (18 percent of the sample, accounting for 91 children). It has also generated some useful demographic information about the children involved. But it does not reflect the same-sex parenting population and their children as a whole — only those adults who were keen to participate in a study with political significance. They are predominantly, as is typical in such studies, highly educated, high earning urbanites. They are undoubtedly more politically active and motivated than the average same-sex attracted dad in a country town.
But how do you find that politically passive dad, or working class lesbian mum, or their children?
Ask Mark Regnerus, the US sociology professor who has done what is, in fact, the largest study of such children. As he said in his comment on the ACHESS study last year, it’s difficult and, above all, expensive work.
How do we know about the children?
Dr Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study (NFSS) published about the same time as the researchers in Melbourne were recruiting people for their study, collected data from nearly 3000 adults (age 18 to 39) who had grown up with a lesbian mother or homosexual father and compared them with those raised by a married mother and father. These people were able to report for themselves on their state of physical and mental health, closeness to parents, sexual identity, relationships and other common measures of wellbeing.
All we know about the ACHESS children — so far – is what their parents (or parent figures) have told researchers. Children aged 10 through 17 could fill out a questionnaire but only with parental consent, and in any case the data from them does not seem to be included in the current study. Note that the median age for the children of male parents in the study is 2, and of female parents, 4. So most of the children would not be old enough to make their own report, even if the parent consented. The authors say:
There is no evidence to suggest that any group of parents would systematically respond in a particular way on any given scale, however this cannot be discounted entirely. Future research will report on child-reported measures of health, as well as a contextual analysis of qualitative data drawn from family interviews, in order to draw out any bias that parental reporting might have.
A slightly less rosy picture would add credibility.
One of the claims of ACHESS is that their same-sex families scored significantly higher on family cohesion (6 percent higher, compared to “the general population”). However, a major theme emerging from the Regnerus study is family instability, the grown children of women in lesbian relationships reporting a much higher incidence of time spent in foster care, grandparent care and living on their own before age 18 than those in the rest of the sample.
What do we know about the “families” ACHESS children live in?
Remember, this is not a study of children raised by same-sex “couples” – it is a study of “children . . . with at least one parent who self identifies as being same-sex attracted.” This means that a “family” could consist entirely of a male child being raised by a single female parent – if that mother merely happens to be sexually attracted to other females.
The study refers to the main parent as “the index parent”. Among the children of male index parents:
* 51 percent of the children were that person’s biological child (number = 46)
* 19 percent were a partner’s biological child (17) and a few were fostered. Two were adopted.
There is obviously room in the word “biological” for the use of reproductive technology (ART) and surrogacy involving one partner’s sperm.
* for 73 percent of the children the main parent was in his current relationship at the time of conception, fostering or adoption – meaning that for 27 percent of the children (35) household arrangements had changed since birth. Over 90 percent of the parents were in a relationship at the time of the survey.
* 77 percent of the children of male index parents lived with that parent full time, and 18 percent part-time.
Of the 91 children with male parents, 75 (or 82 percent) were conceived using surrogacy, which involves ART. Some 46 percent involved the parent’s (parents’?) own “gametes” (a word which seems to allow for an opposite sex parent in the picture as well as the father). Since surrogacy is illegal in Australia most of these children were born of surrogates in India (36 children) or the US (20) – that’s nearly two-thirds with, presumably, no relationship with or possibility of relating to their biological mother. The study authors, in describing how conscientious male same-sex parents are about their babies’ health, note:
Despite the lack of an easy supply, a number of our male parents strove to ensure that their children receive some breast milk in early life, with a significant proportion of these children born via surrogacy (64%). This is usually achieved via surrogate milk donation and is an indication that same-sex male parents make efforts to support this health strategy for their children.
How this works for the babies born in India and the US is a bit mysterious.
The picture is somewhat different for children whose main parent is female. All but a handful were born in Australia; 64 percent were the index parent’s biological child and 20 percent a partner’s biological child; 84 percent live with the main parent full-time. Only 20 percent of the children were conceived through sexual intercourse, nearly all the rest being born after home insemination (32 percent), ART with an unknown donor (36 percent) or known donor/own gametes (12 percent).
However, family stability looks rather similar to the male profile: 94 percent of the children’s parents were in a relationship at the time of the survey, but only 70 percent were in the same relationship as when the child was conceived, fostered or adopted.
Perhaps the fact that around 30 percent of children (150 out of 500) in the study have experienced a change in their main parent’s partner/relationship is consistent with Dr Crouch’s claim that “family cohesion” is (6 percent) better than in the general population (“their families are getting along really well”). But it is impossible to know what constitutes a “family” in this context, whether it indicates anything like what most of us would consider family life.
Even greater is our ignorance of how children born of donors and surrogate mothers will react to their origins in the long run – unless their “parents” intend to keep this information from them.
If it’s worse, it will be someone else’s fault
One thing, however, we can know for sure about this study – actually, two. Firstly, if some results are “worse” than for other children and not “better” it is because of “stigma”.
In spite of doing well, many children did experience stigma, which was linked to lower scores on a number of scales. Stigma can be subtle, such as letters home from school addressed to Mr and Mrs. Or it can be overt and very harmful, in the form of bullying and abuse at school. The more stigma the family experienced, the greater the impact on the social and emotional well-being of the children.
In other words, it is highly unlikely that anything could be wrong with the same-sex family itself; it is society that is at fault and must change.
The second thing follows from the first: this “large” and “strong” study will be brandished far and wide as evidence for political change: same-sex marriage and adoption and, inevitably, the legalisation of commercial surrogacy. Dr Crouch presents it as an argument for adoption in the article already cited.
However, it is not a strong study in the scientific sense – certainly not strong enough to justify gambling with even more children’s lives. The strongest study we have on same-sex parenting to date indicates that children in the longer term fare worse when raised in such circumstances. If we want children to grow into healthy, stable adults we should take our evidence from the hard work of Mark Regnerus, not from the convenient findings of Simon Crouch.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.