What about the children?

Last week’s Senate report on same-sex marriage usefully summarises many of the arguments for and against.

Some of the arguments presented by gay marriage opponents concerned children. The Australian Christian Lobby put it this way:

It [gay marriage] discards the significance of marriage as an important social good held by a shared community as a public commitment to family and the raising of children.

But it really isn’t clear that the ACL’s position against gay marriage is consistent with their concern with children. The 2005 Private Lives survey found that 4% of gay men and 16% of lesbians currently live with children. So the ACL’s position seems to simultaneously that marriage is important as a public commitment to raising children and that the children who are going to be living in gay households anyway should be denied that public commitment.

One unexplored issue in the Senate report is whether gay marriage would substantially increase the number of children in gay households. From the Private Lives report, about two-thirds of the kids living with lesbians are the result of previous heterosexual relationships (no figures on the guys). Presumably changed attitudes to homosexuality over the years will mean that fewer people will feel pressured into heterosexual relationships, which produce kids but lead to divorce. In that sense, the ‘normalising’ of homosexuality in gay marriage would help reduce the context in which children are most easily brought into the world by gay people.

On the other hand, the same cultural processes will have unpredictable effects on plans to have children. In the Private Lives survey, half of the women without children wanted them, double the proportion in the overall sample who had actually ever had a child. Possibly as the idea of gay families becomes more accepted the number of children born via artificial insemination or surrogate mothers will increase. It is hard to know what independent role gay marriage will play in this, since it is a political by-product of social changes that are occurring in any case, but is also likely to accelerate those changes once it is in place.

To its credit, the ACL has supported other changes to reduce discrimination against gay people. But if it is concerned about children, nevertheless requiring the offspring of gay parents to live with unmarried partners makes little sense.

10 thoughts on “What about the children?

  1. I don’t see any internal inconsistency in the ACL position.

    You acccuse them of inconsistency because their opposition to gay marriage means that “children who are going to be living in gay households anyway should be denied that public commitment”.

    But the ACL is saying that traditional marriage, not gay marriage, represents a you miss their point: they don’t believe that gay marriage represents “public commitment to family and the raising of children”. That is their description of traditional marriage; they believe that gay marriage is not consistent with a public commitment to “family”, which to them has a particular meaning (c.f. the old Keating quote: “two blokes and a cocker spaniel don’t make a family).

    They believe that, regardless of whether the gay partners are “married” or not, the child is being denied the benefits of the traditional commitment embodied by marriage as currently defined. And they understandably oppose a semantic change which would erode the institution they support.

    While it is easy to dismiss this as irrational prejudice, there is a significant body of scientific work around the biological and psychological significance of the distinct roles played by a mother and father. I don’t have a problem with their position: provide rights for gay couples that are consistent with their status as “life partners”, but not as an alternative model for child-rearing.

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  2. “While it is easy to dismiss this as irrational prejudice, there is a significant body of scientific work around the biological and psychological significance of the distinct roles played by a mother and father”
    .
    And there’s also a reasonable amount of literature around (albeit, and not suprisingly, from quite liberal countries) that shows that if you have two lesbian parents, you’re no worse off in any obvious way than two hetero parents (there is a review of the literature on the Aus Institute of Family Studies site somewhere). Thus the fact that fathers and mothers may play different roles is evidently essentially irrelevant to children’s wellbeing, and hence it isn’t argument against a certain type of family structure. I don’t know of any review of two father families but maybe someone else does.

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  3. Alan – My reading of the family literature is a bit rusty, but I certainly recall findings that boys particularly seem to have been disadvantaged by not having men in the home (too few single father families with daughters, perhaps, to come to strong findings on them). But the question then is whether family law is promoting formation of the social policy ideal state or trying to make the best of the circumstances kids actually find themselves in. Divorce law is certainly dedicated to the latter, and I would suggest marriage law should be as well.

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  4. Andrew you have to remember the big picture. The campaign for gay marriage doesn’t stop at gay marriage. The next inevitable step is gay adoption.

    Not having a parent of each gender living in the same household is not ideal and results in worse outcomes over a large sample (according to various studies). Sometimes as a consequence of death or divorce this situation eventuates, but its not the initial plan.

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  5. “Not having a parent of each gender living in the same household is not ideal and results in worse outcomes over a large sample (according to various studies”
    .
    Says who? There is a short summary in this document: http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/RP30.html, and I seem to remember there is a bigger review in another on the site (sorry, I can’t remember which one). It’s also worthwhile noting that most effects (if any — and some are arguably positive) people have found are tiny. If you were to worry about that, then you’d die of stress worrying about, for example, single parent families, where there are decent effect sizes on some negative measures.
    .
    “The next inevitable step is gay adoption.”
    .
    If gay parents are just as good as hetero parents at bringing up children, as the evidence suggests, then why would you want to discriminate against them?

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  6. Adoption is a state issue, though the feds banned same-sex couples adopting foreign kids. In general, gay marriage should solve the main gay adoption issue – creating a legal relationship with and responsibility for the biological child of a gay partner. It is already very difficult to adopt otherwise unattached kids. If a gay couple can meet the high standards required, as Conrad suggests it is hard to see why they should be ruled out as a category.

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  7. the child is being denied the benefits of the traditional commitment embodied by marriage as currently defined. And they understandably oppose a semantic change which would erode the institution they support.
    Given that the children living with gay couples are clearly not going to stop living with them, to deny such families legal benefits and recognition is not helping children.

    An the only “erosion” is by granting legal equality, always a very dubious notion of “erosion”. (Does letting Jews in “erode” something? Blacks? Women, etc.)

    A lot of opposition to legal equality for same-sex oriented people seems to have as an implicit or explicit premise that, if such is denied, they will go away. Or something. Simply not true.

    While it is easy to dismiss this as irrational prejudice, there is a significant body of scientific work around the biological and psychological significance of the distinct roles played by a mother and father.
    A lot of the literature about parents is, in fact, comparing single parent families with two-opposite-sex-parent families. There is a fair bit of lumping two same-sex parent families in with single-parent families as if the results for the latter also apply to the former. Not necessarily so.

    It gets even murkier given that much of the effect of single parent families goes away if one adjusts for socio-economic factors. (In other words, single parent families of low socio-economic status do rather badly: single parent families of higher socio-economic status, not so much.) Which suggests the real issue is support networks, resources and personal capacities. Which makes applying the results across to same-sex couples even more dubious.

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  8. Bringing up children is difficult and a shitload of work. It’s no wonder that two people generally find the job easier than one person and often get better results.

    Whether those two people need to be different genders is another matter.

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  9. The usually deficient Wikipedia links to numerous academic studies that show gay parents are not deficient. Single parents on the other hand are more so.

    There is a stronger argument for compulsory marriage (and forcing fathers of otherwise single parent families to take responsibility) than there is for prohibiting gay marriage on the “for the children” grounds.

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