A central argument made against same-sex marriage is that children born into these marriages will be disadvantaged: they will grow up with inappropriate gender role modelling, be bullied at school and suffer poorer emotional well-being than their peers.
Same-sex attracted people may come to parenthood in many ways – though former heterosexual relationships, as a foster parent or a step parent. Increasingly, lesbian couples and single women are forming families using known sperm donors (a friend of the couple) or a clinic-sourced anonymous donor. Male couples are also increasingly turning to egg donation and surrogacy services to become parents.
The 2011 Australian Census counted 33,714 same-sex couples. Around 4,000 of these couples had dependent children living with them. But this is likely to be an under-representation, as not all same-sex attracted people declare their relationship in the census and single parents who identify as same-sex attracted would not be identified.
In the United States, of the 594,000 same-sex couple households in 2011, 115,000 reported having children.
People may not agree with gay marriage on moral or religious grounds. But the argument that it harms children does not stack up against current evidence.
In 2010, American researchers published results from a meta-analysis of 33 studies comparing the well-being of children raised by opposite-sex couples with children raised by same-sex couples. This study found no evidence that children raised by same-sex parents fared any worse than other children on a range of behavioural, educational, emotional or social outcomes.
The researchers also concluded there was no evidence that children raised by a single parent or same-sex couples were less competent or well-rounded than other children. If anything, studies of single-parent families show these men and women are more flexible in their parenting styles than they are given credit for. Men are capable of gentle, nurturing parenting. Women are capable of setting rules and boundaries for children, while also teaching them football.
What about donor-conceived children?
Political concerns about lesbians’ access to fertility services means the well-being of donor-conceived children has entered debates about same-sex marriage and parenting.
In 2013, the story of Narelle Grech, a young Australian woman who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, hit the news media. Grech was donor-conceived and desperately wanted to meet her biological father before she died.
Grech’s story made a powerful statement about the importance of donor-conceived children having the option to know their genetic heritage. But media reports often gave the impression that every donor-conceived child was searching sadly for their genetic parent.
This is not the case. Some donor-conceived children are highly driven to meet donor parents, some are curious and others aren’t interested. There is no evidence that donor-conception causes children emotional or social damage.
Do children get teased at school?
A 2008 study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in the United States found many children raised by same-sex parents had experienced or witnessed some form of homophobic harassment at school.
But more commonly, young people reported feeling excluded or isolated because schools did not acknowledge their family makeup. In some cases, staff actively discouraged students from speaking about their families due to a misguided concern that this amounted to talking about sex or sexuality in the classroom.
Other studies have found more mixed results.
Australian research has shown that some children worry they will experience homophobic discrimination and this anxiety may affect their well-being. But most children with same-sex parents do not encounter more frequent or intense schoolyard bullying than other children.
Additionally, children with same-sex parents generally have good social networks and peer relationships, which are a strong buffer against stigma or discrimination.
Is this research reliable?
Studies on the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents have been criticised because most rely on small “convenience” samples. Critics argue convenience sampling is inherently unreliable because people who are healthy and resourceful are more likely to opt in to studies than those who are socially disconnected or less capable.
However, large population-based studies tend to include only a small sub-sample of children raised by same-sex parents. This doesn’t generate the numbers needed for reliable statistical analysis.
Methodological limitations provide fuel for conservative arguments against the validity of these studies. What critics do not acknowledge is that repetition of findings – numerous studies conducted over time and in various locations, all which show children with same-sex parents are doing well – is a major strength of this body of research.
What about same-sex marriage?
Children raised by same-sex parents do better when they are living in a city or country that is more socially progressive and accepting of homosexuality. As such, openly supporting the rights of same-sex couples is one of the best things governments can do to support children being raised by same-sex parents.
Beyond this, funding programs such as the Safe-Schools coalition Australia, which seeks to ensure schools are well-equipped to address homophobia, will have a direct impact on the day-to-day experiences of children with same-sex parents.
Jennifer Power has previously received funding from the Australian Research Council, VicHealth, Relationships Australia and ACON. She currently works on a project funded by the Australian Commonwealth Government.