Are Children of Gay Couples at a Disadvantage?

The debate over same-sex parenting has raged for years now -- many social conservatives are skeptical of the practice, fearing that gay couples cannot provide the same benefits to a child that heterosexual couples can. Liberal and conservative social scientists have gone back and forth with studies debating this point, many of which (on both sides) have suffered from serious methodological flaws.

Some on the left are now touting a new study from UCLA Law's Williams Institute, which looked at various factors that affect outcomes for adopted children. Regarding homosexual parenting, the bottom-line result is that gay and straight couples are equally effective. As is typical in social science, though, a closer look reveals obvious routes for criticism.

The study included 120 families in total -- 45 heterosexual, 35 male-male, and 40 female-female. These subjects were selected from a larger study because they had adopted children less than 1.5 years old; focusing on a narrow age range helped the researchers avoid comparing apples to oranges.

This is how the participants in that larger study were recruited:

Inclusion criteria . . . were: (a) couples must be adopting their first child; and (b) both partners must be becoming parents for the first time. Participants were originally recruited during the preadoptive period (i.e., while they were waiting for a child placement). Adoption agencies across the United States were asked to provide study information to clients who had not yet adopted. U.S. census data were used to identify states with a high percentage of same-sex couples (Gates & Ost, 2004); effort was made to contact agencies in those states. Over 30 agencies provided information to clients, typically in the form of a brochure that invited them to participate in a study of the transition to adoptive parenthood. Couples were asked to contact the principal investigator for details. Because some same-sex couples may not be "out" to agencies about their sexual orientation, several national gay organizations (e.g., the Human Rights Campaign) also assisted in disseminating study information.

These recruiting efforts were clearly wide-ranging, but they were not purely random; participants needed to contact the researchers after receiving a brochure, and gay-rights groups participated in outreach. There is some evidence that these methods skewed the sample: In the new study, the average female couple had an income of $114,000, the average male couple an income of $202,000, and the average heterosexual couple an income of $128,000. As the authors note, on average nationwide, gay adoptive couples have an income of $102,000 and straight adoptive couples have an income of $82,000.

After finding participants, the researchers conducted phone interviews to gather data on the circumstances surrounding the adoptions, and then followed up two years later to measure child outcomes. Few couples broke up between the two interviews, and those that did were excluded, according to Abbie Goldberg, the lead author of the study, who responded to several questions via e-mail.

The followup interviews, conducted when the children were aged 2 to 3.5, are worth considering in depth. Clearly, the data can't tell us anything about child development after age 3.5. And this is how outcomes were measured:

The Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL/1.5–5; Achenbach & Rescorla, 2000), designed for children 1.5–5 years, consists of three domains: internalizing problems, externalizing problems, and total problems. We used the internalizing and externalizing problem scores as outcomes. Parents responded to 100 items and indicated how often their child displayed various emotional/behavioral problems using a 3-point scale (0 not true; 1 somewhat/sometimes true; 2 very/often true).

As the authors concede, parents are not necessarily the most objective sources regarding their children's behavioral problems. Further, while the couples were merely asked to participate in a study about "the transition to adoptive parenthood," it's possible that gay couples suspected (correctly) that attention would be paid to their orientation -- and thus felt pressured to report positive results in a way that straight couples didn't.

Keeping these caveats in mind, however, it's undeniable that the study produced numerous interesting and relevant findings. For example, conservatives have alleged that gay relationships are inherently unstable in a way that makes gay parenting a bad idea. But on average, the study's straight couples had been together 9 years, while gay couples had been together 7.5 years. It's hard to make much of that difference, because many of the straight couples likely spent time trying to conceive naturally before turning to adoption.

And of course, after conducting a variety of analyses with these data, the authors failed to find evidence that children were worse off with gay couples. That result may not be a debate-ender, but it's another piece of information that can help to anchor an increasingly contentious discussion.

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