Monday, March 18, 2019

Aquinas on Adoption: Can Same-Sex Marriage Show a "Likeness" to Heterosexual Marriage?

Thomas Aquinas argues for the natural law of marriage as rooted in the biological nature of those animals (such as birds) whose offspring require parental care from both parents.  Natural marriage understood in this way has two natural ends.  The primary end is the generation and rearing of offspring.  The secondary end is the conjugal bonding of male and female.

If one adopts this Thomistic view of marriage, then it might seem that Thomistic natural law could never sanction same-sex marriage as securing the two natural ends of marriage.  After all, Aquinas is clear in rejecting homosexuality as "contrary to nature," because no other animals engage in homosexual mating, and because homosexuals cannot naturally generate and rear children.  But now the biological study of animal behavior has shown that many animals engage in homosexual mating, and some of these homosexual animals care for offspring, which denies Aquinas's biological reasoning for rejecting homosexuality as unnatural.

One might then wonder whether there is any opening within Aquinas's natural law reasoning for supporting same-sex marriage and parenting.  One possible opening comes in what he says about the adoption of children:
"Art imitates nature and supplies the defect of nature where nature is deficient.  Hence just as man begets by natural generation, so by positive law which is the art of what is good and just, one person can take to himself another as a child in likeness [similitudo] to one that is his child by nature, in order to take the place of the children he has lost, this being the chief reason why adoption was introduced. . . . The sonship of adoption is an imitation [imitatio] of natural sonship" (ST, Suppl., q. 57, a. 1).
If adoptive parents can show a "likeness" or "imitation" of natural parents, so that "art imitates nature," then we might justify legal adoption as promoting the natural end of parental care of children, even when the adoptive parents are not the biological parents of the children.  Most heterosexual couples who want to have children prefer that these be their biological children.  But for various reasons, they can choose to adopt children who are either biologically related to them or not biologically related at all.  And when they do choose to adopt, they usually prefer to adopt younger rather than older children, so that there is a greater likelihood of a parent-child bonding comparable to that of biological parents with their children.

Recent research comparing children reared by their biological parents and adopted children suggests that there are differences, and that there is an elevated risk of bad outcomes for adopted children as compared with children reared by biological parents.  But still this is only a difference on average, and most adopted children grow up to become healthy and successful young adults.

We generally presume that the legal custody of children should go to their biological parents unless there is some good reason not to do this.  We allow for the legal adoption of children when this seems to be in the best interests of the children.

Same-sex couples cannot generate their own biological children through sexual intercourse.  But they can adopt children generated by heterosexual coupling.  Perhaps most commonly lesbian mothers have children that were conceived when the women were in a heterosexual marriage that they left by divorce.  More rarely gay males that were previously in a heterosexual marriage might take custody of children conceived in that marriage.  Or a same-sex couple might plan the adoption of children who are either unrelated biologically to either parent, or who are related to one or both of the parents.  Lesbian women can use assisted reproduction technology (ART) or surrogacy to generate children related to them either directly or indirectly.  If they use eggs or sperm from siblings, both same-sex partners could be biologically related to the children.  Is this same-sex parenting a close enough "likeness" to heterosexual parenting that both forms of parenting might satisfy the natural need of the children for parental care?

We are assuming here--as Aquinas does--that the natural gold standard for raising children is the intact and stable biological family with both biological parents sharing in the rearing of the children, and thus the goodness of any other family structure is judged by how well it approximates this natural family structure.  By the beginning of the 21st century, most of the scholarly research on marriage and the family had reached consensus on this.

One of the most commonly cited surveys of this research was by Moore, Jekielek, and Emig (2002), which concluded: "An extensive body of research tells us that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage."

They elaborated on this conclusion:
"Research findings linking family structure and parents' marital status with children's well-being are very consistent.  The majority of children who are not raised by both biological parents manage to grow up without serious problems, especially after a period of adjustment for children whose parents divorce.  Yet, on average, children in single-parent families are more likely to have problems than are children who live in intact families headed by two biological parents."
"Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be poor, to grow up in a single-parent family, and to experience multiple living arrangements during childhood.  These factors, in turn, are associated with lower educational attainment and a higher risk of teen and nonmarital childbearing."
"Divorce is linked to academic and behavior problems among children, including depression, antisocial behavior, impulsive/hyperactive behavior, and school behavior problems.  Mental health problems linked to marital disruption have also been identified among young adults."
"Children growing up with stepparents also have lower levels of well-being than children growing up with biological parents.  Thus, it is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children's development."
"Of course, the quality of a marriage also affects children.  Specifically, children benefit from a low-conflict marriage.  Children who grow up in an intact but high-conflict marriage have worse emotional well-being than children whose parents are in a low-conflict marriage" (1-2).
Whenever I have discussed these kinds of claims with college students, invariably some of those students who have been raised by single mothers or stepparents will protest that these claims are false, because, after all, young adults like themselves have done well without being raised by two biological parents.  We have then talked about this and noted that these claims are qualified by the words "on average" and "more likely": on average, there is a greater likelihood of harm to children raised by single parents or stepparents, although "the majority of children who are not raised by both biological parents manage to grow up without serious problems."  Moreover, even a household headed by two biological parents can be harmful to the children if there is a high level of conflict between the parents, which is why sometimes divorce is better for the children.

So what does this suggest about homosexual parenting?  Is it as good for children on average as heterosexual parenting in families headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage?  Or does homosexual parenting bring increased risks for children comparable to parenting by unmarried mothers, divorced single mothers, and stepparents?

The answers here depend upon whether one thinks that homosexual parents are naturally inclined to form stable intact families headed by two parents in a low-conflict marriage who have some biological connection to the children, which would show some "likeness" to stable intact natural families with two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.  Alternatively, if one thinks that the same-sex relationships of gay men and lesbian women tend inevitably to be unstable and full of conflict, then one will have to conclude that same-sex marriage will never succeed in securing good parenting for children, and so it can never approximate the success attainable by natural biological families.

This is the point that was made by William Saletan in his essay for Slate in response to Mark Regnerus's controversial article on parenting by people who have same-sex relationships.  Saletan (2012) began by asking: "Is same-sex marriage a good idea?  Or is an intact biological family the best environment for raising a child?  The answer may turn out to be yes and yes."

Surveying a large random sample of American young adults (ages 18-39), Regnerus identified those who reported that their mothers or their fathers had had a same-sex sexual relationship during their childhood.  These children were then put into the category of "gay father" (GF) or "lesbian mother" (LM).  Regnerus then identified the other children as belonging to another family structure during their childhood--"intact biological family" (IBF), "adopted," "divorced," "stepfamily," or "single-parent" household.  From what they reported about their lives, Regnerus could show that these GF or LM children were more likely to suffer emotional, mental, or social problems than those children raised in intact biological families.

This might seem to show that homosexuals cannot be good parents.  But that's not true, Saletan observes, because as Regnerus indicates, almost all of those children in the "gay father" (GF) or "lesbian mother" (LF) category came from a "failed heterosexual union," and these children spent little or no time being reared by same-sex parents.  These were not the children of stable, planned same-sex families.  They were the children of heterosexual unions that failed because gay men and lesbian women were trying to hide their homosexuality in a world where same-sex marriage was impossible.

So, Saletan explains, "this isn't a study of gay couples who decided to have kids.  It's a study of people who engaged in same-sex relationships--and often broke up their households--decades ago."  This study does tell us something important: "We need fewer 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."

Saletan concludes: "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."

In an essay for Slate posted the same day as Saletan's, Regnerus recognized Saletan's conclusion as one possible lesson from the research: "the instability detected in the NFSS could translate into a call for extending the relative security afforded by marriage to gay and lesbian couples" by legalizing same-sex marriage.

But Regnerus also saw that one could draw a different lesson: "it may suggest that the household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still--according to the data, at least--the safest place for a kid."  Clearly, this second lesson is the one favored by Regnerus.

Saletan and Regnerus agree with Aquinas that a household headed by two biological parents in a stable marriage is the best family structure to provide parental care.  Saletan and Regnerus disagree with one another, however, as to whether a stable and committed same-sex marriage with children can show at least a "likeness" to the natural parental care of children in a heterosexual marriage.

In my next post, I will say more about the debate over Regnerus's study.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica.  Available online.

Moore, Kristin Anderson, Susan M. Jekielek, and Carol Emig. 2002. "Marriage from a Child's Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do About it?"  Trends in Child Research Brief.  June 2002.  Available online.

Regnerus, Mark. 2012. "Gay Parents: Are They Really No Different?" June 11, 2012.  Available online.

Saletan, William. 2012. "New Family Structures Study: Is Gay Parenthood Bad?  Or is Gay Marriage Good?" June 11, 2012.  Available online.

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