Friday, July 27, 2012

Gay Parenting and the Biological Conservatism of Kin Altruism

In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued an official report on lesbian and gay parenting.  The report concluded: "Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents."  This report has been often cited by the proponents of gay marriage as refutation of the belief that legalizing gay marriage would harm the children who might be reared by gay parents.

That APA report has now been challenged by new research published in the July, 2012, issue of Social Science Research.  In one article, Loren Marks points to the serious methodological weaknesses in the research cited by the APA report.  In another article, Mark Regnerus reports new research suggesting that the children of gay and lesbian parents really do show a higher risk of social and psychological problems as compared with the children reared by heterosexual parents in stable marriages.  Regnerus has summarized his research in a popular essay for Slate.  Also at Slate, William Saletan has written a commentary on Regnerus' research.

This has provoked a fierce debate.  Some of the opponents of gay marriage are claiming that this proves that gays and lesbians cannot be good parents.  Some of the proponents of gay marriage are insisting that this research is so flawed that it does not prove anything.  The fact that this research was financed by $800,000 from the Bradley Foundation and the Witherspoon Institute--two conservative organizations--has been noted by some critics as evidence that the research suffers from bias.  (The Witherspoon Institute provides a website on this research with links to the various articles.)

Andrew Ferguson has written an article for The Weekly Standard on this controversy as showing "the perils of politically incorrect academic research."  But if one reads Ferguson's article carefully, one can see that he is critical not just of Regnerus' liberal opponents but also of the conservatives who are using Regnerus' research to attack gay marriage.  In fact, Ferguson suggests, the flaws in the gay parenting research--including Regnerus' research--are so pervasive that it's not clear that any firm conclusions can be drawn.

But I think there is at least one clear conclusion, which is stated by Saletan: "Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home.  If that's good advice for straights, it's good advice for gays, too." 

This supports my argument for the biological model of marriage and family bonding as part of a biological conservatism that looks to our evolved biological nature as a ground for moral and political judgment.  That biological model could support gay marriage as good for children insofar as it provides "two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home." 

Although conservatives like Robert George, Matt Franck, and others at the Witherspoon Institute would not agree with me that homosexual marriage could approximate the natural biological model, it's significant that they do now agree with me in appealing to human biological nature, and thus they no longer rely on a transcendental Kantian rationalism that denies the normative character of human biological nature.

The conclusions of the APA report of 2005 were based on 59 published studies.  Loren Marks shows that this report failed to recognize the many methodological flaws in these studies.  For example, she concludes, "with rare exceptions, the research does not include studies comparing children raised by two-parent, same-sex couples with children raised by marriage-based, heterosexual couples" (742).  The sample sizes in these studies tend to be very small, and they tend to be biased in various ways--as, for instance, in studying only the children of well-educated, middle-class, lesbian mothers.  In many cases, the children of gay parents are compared with the children of single heterosexual mothers, rather than with the children of still-married heterosexual parents.  Moreover, the APA report does not cite at least one study that concludes that "children of homosexual parents report deviance in higher proportions than children of (married or cohabiting) heterosexual couples" (744).

As an alternative to the weak research surveyed in the APA report, Regnerus has written the first report from the New Family Structures Study, which he claims to be the largest, random dataset designed to answer questions about households in which one or both of the parents were homosexual.  Young adults (between the ages of 18 and 39) were surveyed.  They were asked if their mother or father had ever had a romantic relationship with a same-sex partner.  175 answered yes for their mothers, and 73 answered yes for their fathers.  These children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers were then compared with the children of heterosexual parents.  The children of the homosexual parents were more likely to show signs of problems in their lives than were the children of heterosexual parents.  For example, the children of homosexual parents were more likely to be unemployed, more likely to have had an affair while married or cohabiting, and more likely to be in treatment for psychological problems.

The problem with this study, however, as even Regnerus admits, is that most of these children of homosexual parents were products of broken homes.  Most of these children were products of a "failed heterosexual union" in which a lesbian mother or a gay father left the household after the children were born.  If these children were less healthy than the children from stable heterosexual households, that probably shows the damage from broken homes.

Saletan writes:
     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 few broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights.  We need to study Regnerus's 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.
     The study does raise a fundamental challenge for same-sex couples.  Since they can't produce children from their combined gametes, they suffer, in Regnerus' words, "a diminished context of kin altruism."  He points out that in studies of adoption, stepfamilies, and cohabitation, this kinship deficit has "typically proven to be a risk setting, on average, for raising children when compared with married, biological parenting."  Homosexuals who want to have kids could emulate the biological model by using eggs or sperm from a sibling of the non-biological parent, though the effects of this practice on family dynamics are unknown.
If lesbian women and gay men have the same natural desires for sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental care as heterosexual men and women, and if gay marriage increases the likelihood of gays living in households with "two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home," this would support a biologically conservative argument for legalizing gay marriage.

A few of my previous posts on this topic--with responses to Robert George and Matt Franck--can be found here, here, and here.


bjtibbs said...

"If lesbian women and gay men have the same natural desires for sexual mating" etc.

If unicorns could fly . . . seriously, why make this assumption, other than wishful thinking? Do you honestly think that a population of gay couples is going to provide the same level of care as a population of biological mothers? A Darwinian conservatism that ignores the distinction between men and women, biological parents and step-parents, doesn't sound very conservative or Darwinian. The simplest comparison for gay couples is households with a step-parent. And as we know that step-parents are unfortunately a vector of abuse, then the analogy to gay couples is plain. Wishful thinking is not good public policy.

Father said...

Larry - Why does your 'Darwinian conservatism' begin to waffle when it comes to gay marriage? Where are the Darwinians when you really need them? Hiding in the bushes behind libertarianism or the denial of inconvenient truths.
Perhaps it is because the persistence of 2-3% homosexual identity among humans actually raises questions about the explanatory power of natural selection itself -- this persistence should have been selected out long ago, if natural selection is the sole force driving human nature. And please don't switch from genes to memes and make the ad hoc argument that they were needed for shamans, or artists or interior decorators. For Larry, homosexuals are really wanna-be heterosexuals, in order to save Darwinian theory from incompleteness. Legalizing gay marriage simply weakens the whole institution of marriage by making it a mere personal relation, not an institution for the procreation and rearing children (the core of real, natural marriage).

Anonymous said...

Father's understanding of natural selection or descent with modification appears deficient, or at least stagnant (circa 1920). Perhaps homosexuality has a structual/functional purpose within or between groups? It also assumes competence of parenting within heteros..take a look around.

It seems to me to run along a spectrum of femininity and masculinity, for a lack of better terms at this moment. Do you ever see two "lip-stick" lesbians in a real world relationship? Or two "masculine" type females in a relationship? Even with gay men, there seems to be a balance between a more feminine type (mothers?) with a more masculine type (fathers), whatever the physiological coorelates. Perhaps it is striking a balance along a spectrum of neurophysiology rather than pure anatomy, i.e. genitals. And parenting too?

Marriage, regardless of sexuality, is difficult any way you slice it, not to mention raising a child, or two, or three. Sexuality may be redundant to this argument.

Father said...

Father replies:
The structural/functional argument for the persistence of 2-3% homosexuals is the false move from genes to memes -- ie, from biology to culture. It assumes higher values than procreation and survival, like artistic beauty. Even there, it is not true that most great artists were/are gay -- a few are, most are not.
From the perspective of Darwinian evolution, homosexuality is an abnormality and should not have persisted (especially female homosexuality). It's really quite inexplicable -- all the attempts at explanation using Darwinian premises sound strained and unprovable or switch from genes to culture. Are they really saying that mother, father, child is not a primordial Darwinian relation?