According to Census data analyzed by the Williams Institute at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, at least 775,000 same-sex couples live in households across the nation, including Maine, and 20 percent of these couples are raising children under age 18. At least 270,000 of all U.S. children live in these households.
In a Sept. 2 column, Bob Emrich, an opponent of same-sex marriage, implied that these children are at serious risk. Mr. Emrich concluded that “social science research has now documented” that “children do best by far … when they are raised by their married biological parents. … This body of scientific evidence is now so overwhelming that there can be no argument about this fact.”
As social scientists with a combined 97 years of experience writing and reading about research on marriage, families, and children, we beg to differ: Mr. Emrich’s conclusion cannot be further from the truth.
An overall conclusion from the relevant research literature is that the number and sexual orientation of parents are in fact far less important for children’s well-being than the quality of parenting, regardless of the number of parents, the stability of the family arrangement, the presence or absence of destructive conflicts between the parents, if there are two parents, and the family’s financial resources and social support networks. The sexual orientation and biological status of the parents vis-à-vis the children make no difference for children’s well-being, as children raised by same-sex couples have the same level of psychological well-being as children raised by their married biological parents.
An analysis of the research literature that appeared in the American Sociological Review concluded, “Because every relevant study to date shows that parental sexual orientation per se has no measurable effect on the quality of parent-child relationships or on children’s mental health or social adjustment, there is no evidentiary basis for considering parental sexual orientation in decisions about children’s ‘best interest.’” This conclusion directly contradicts Mr. Emrich’s statement about the “overwhelming” social scientific evidence.
We take issue with Mr. Emrich’s argument on another ground. He implies that same-sex marriage should be banned because of the supposed benefits of parenting by both biological parents. Yet about 26 percent of U.S. children live with only one biological parent. According to Mr. Emrich’s reasoning, the government should ban this parental arrangement as well. If such a ban makes no sense, then neither does a ban on same-sex marriage for this reason.
Mr. Emrich further implies that the government should ban same-sex marriages because marriage “has always been primarily child-centered” and “it is biologically impossible for two individuals of the same sex to produce children.” Yet, many heterosexual married couples do not have children, either because they are unable to have them, they do not want to have them, or they marry beyond the age when childbearing is possible. According to Mr. Emrich’s reasoning, the government should ban all these marriages. If such a ban again makes no sense, then neither does a ban on same-sex marriage for this reason.
Loving families headed by same-sex couples are not going away. There is no good reason why they should. The research on marriage, families and children shows that children living with same-sex parents are as psychologically healthy as children living with heterosexual parents, including their biological parents. Opponents of same-sex marriages should stop pretending otherwise, and they should stop distorting what social science research has actually documented on this very important issue. And they might consider that the children who grow up with same-sex parents are overwhelmingly clear about one simple point: What hurts them the most are the beliefs and the actions of people in their communities who think their families are not as legitimate and not as ordinary as any other family.
Steven Barkan is chair of the sociology department at the University of Maine. Stephen Marks is a professor of sociology and Robert Milardo is a professor of family relations at UMaine.