Should gays adopt kids?

How you look at things.
Feb. 7 2002 4:34 PM

Adopting Premises

The sneaky debate over legalizing adoptions by gay couples.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Several million American children reportedly live in homes with at least one gay parent. In most cases, the same-sex domestic partner of that parent has no legal parental rights or responsibilities. This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that these "co-parents" should be allowed to undertake such rights and responsibilities by adopting their partners' children. The announcement has provoked outcries from conservatives, with each side claiming to represent science against politics. In truth, each side's "science" is loaded with politics. Here's how they fudge the data.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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1. Define the presumption. Both sides acknowledge that the evidence on how well kids fare with gay parents as opposed to straight ones is incomplete and doesn't yet show big differences. Conservatives spin this tie as a win, figuring that current laws should stay in place until evidence proves that gay parenting is safe. Focus on the Family says the AAP's research is "inconclusive" and "should not be used in legal cases to make any argument." That way, the burden of proof stays on liberals.

The AAP shifts the burden to conservatives by defining their presumption as a prediction that big differences will show up in studies. The question, according to the AAP, is "whether there is any empiric support for these assumptions." Since those differences haven't shown up yet, the AAP concludes that the presumption has been falsified.

To make sure that the assumption that straight parents are superior can't be falsified, conservatives trot out the "guinea pig" argument. According to Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council, gays shouldn't be allowed to raise kids—as they have in the studies reported so far—because "children are not guinea pigs and should not be used as pawns in some grand social experiment." The position of the Family Research Council, in short, is that families are too important to subject to research.

2. Define the question. According to Connor, "The International Journal of Epidemiology reported that among homosexuals, there is an increased incidence of suicide, depression, multiple sexual partners, and domestic violence compared to the heterosexual population." From this, Connor concludes  that "problems endemic to the homosexual lifestyle make these relationships inherently unstable, and thus unsuitable for the raising of children."

Supporters of gay adoptions dispute these correlations. But to repeal bans on gay adoptions, they don't have to prove that gay couples, on average, are as parentally fit as straight couples. They just have to change the question to whether all straight couples are more parentally fit than all gay couples. Suppose, for example, there's more suicide, depression, promiscuity, and domestic violence among blacks than among whites. Would such findings justify a ban on adoptions by blacks? If not, why would they justify a ban on adoptions by gays?

Taking this approach, the AAP cites "evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual." Note the key word: can. "All the literature suggests that as long as a parent is providing a loving, caring environment, the parent's sexual orientation doesn't make a difference in the development of the child," says a co-author of the AAP policy. Again, note the key phrase: as long as. By narrowing the comparison to parentally fit couples, the AAP bypasses Connor's contention that straight couples, on average, are more parentally fit.

3. Define the standards. Connor says studies show that "sexual identity confusion is common among children raised by gay parents" and that "children of lesbians are less likely to fit traditional gender roles." The AAP denies the "identity confusion" charge but acknowledges that "men and women who had lesbian mothers were slightly more likely to consider the possibility of having a same-sex partner, and more of them had been involved in at least a brief relationship with someone of the same sex," though this didn't change the proportion who considered themselves gay as adults. In fact, says the AAP, "growing up with parents who are lesbian or gay may confer some advantages to children. They have been described as more tolerant of diversity," for example. In one study, the AAP notes, parents and teachers described kids of lesbians as "more affectionate, responsive, and protective" and less "bossy, negative, and domineering" than kids of straight parents.

These descriptions reek of bias. Each side is rigging the experiment by defining the outcome in terms—"affectionate," "tolerant," "confused"—that validate its own ideology. At one extreme is Connor's crude sexism. "Fathers masculinize their sons, mothers civilize them," he says. At the other extreme is the AAP's pseudoscientific liberalism, which holds that "obtaining donor sperm or arranging for a surrogate mother"—like "finding an accepting adoption agency" or "confronting emotional pain and restrictions imposed by heterosexism"—is just another "challenge" facing gays who want to be parents. Connor oversimplifies nature; the AAP treats it as morally irrelevant.

4. Define the variable. Connor says "children do best when raised by a mother and a father." Bob Knight, the family research director at Concerned Women for America, calls  gay couples "motherless or fatherless families." CWA president Sandy Rios adds, "Telling the public that a homosexual couple can raise a child as effectively as a married couple is on par with telling them that a single mom provides as complete parenting as a mom-and-dad couple." Note the linguistic trick. These descriptions assume that what makes a mom-and-dad household better than a single-parent household is the number of genders. But there's another variable that could account for the difference: the number of parents. In that case, having two moms is more like having a mom and dad than like having just a mom.

The AAP plays a similar trick in reverse. "Because most children whose parents are gay or lesbian have experienced the divorce of their biologic parents, their subsequent psychologic development has to be understood in that context," says the AAP. "Children of divorced lesbian mothers grow up in ways that are very similar to children of divorced heterosexual mothers." By comparing lesbians to divorced straight women rather than to married straight women, the AAP eliminates fatherhood as an explanatory variable. In fact, by leaving fathers out of the equation, the AAP gets to portray male role models as an advantage of lesbian parenthood: "Lesbian mothers … have been shown to be more concerned with providing male role models for their children than are divorced heterosexual mothers."

5. Define the alternative. Connor says legalizing gay adoptions would "deprive" children of having a loving mom and dad. To dodge that dilemma, the media and gay adoption advocates focus on the millions of kids whose alternative to being adopted by a well-off gay couple is far worse than being adopted by a well-off straight couple. They profile gay couples who have taken in orphans, sick or abused children, and Asian kids for whom adoptive parents are hard to find. Connor says it would be better to get straight couples to adopt these kids. But until he recruits enough volunteers, he'll have to explain why living in an orphanage or with a drug-addicted mom is better than having two dads.

6. Define the conditions. Conservatives argue that being adopted by a gay couple puts a kid in an awkward situation. The AAP bypasses this objection by limiting the debate to kids who are already in that situation. The AAP doesn't explicitly endorse a gay couple adopting a child from outside their home. Instead, it says, "Children who are born to or adopted by 1 member of a same-sex couple deserve the security of 2 legally recognized parents." On this basis, the AAP says the other member of the couple should be allowed to adopt the child as well, thereby guaranteeing the child not only a feeling of security but financial benefits such as dependent health insurance.

Should the child be in the custody of a gay person in the first place? The authors of the AAP policy assume that question away. They describe the kids at stake as those who "happen to have a homosexual parent," ignoring the question of how that happened. Like abortion-rights advocates, they stipulate that the disputed conduct will take place anyway and that therefore the best policy is to make it safe and legal. "People are already doing this, de facto," says one sociologist. "The question is are you going to give parents the same rights, and therefore the kids the same rights, and the same stability in their connection to their parents that other kids have?"

7. Define the causality. Connor says society prohibits gay marriage and gay adoption because gays are more prone to promiscuity, depression, drug abuse, and suicide, and less likely to sustain stable relationships than straights are. But what if it's the other way around? What if society's verdict that you're unfit to marry or raise kids makes you more prone  to promiscuity, depression, drug abuse, and suicide, and less likely to sustain stable relationships? And what if the emotional problems that afflict kids with gay parents are caused not by having gay parents, but by society's taboo against gay parenthood?

That's essentially what the AAP argues. "Prevalent heterosexism and stigmatization might lead to teasing and embarrassment for children about their parent's sexual orientation or their family constellation and restrict their ability to form and maintain friendships," says the AAP. "Children living with divorced lesbian mothers have better outcomes … when their fathers and other important adults accept their mother's lesbian identity." Above all, says the AAP, "[d]enying legal parent status through adoption to coparents or second parents prevents these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having 2 willing, capable, and loving parents." In other words, those who oppose legalization of gay marriage and adoption thereby perpetuate the instability they cite as grounds for denying gays the right to marry and adopt.

Each of these debates within the debate can modify the outcome. If having gay parents is better than being in an orphanage but not as good as having straight parents, maybe gays should be allowed to adopt only kids who are wards of the state, as is done in New Jersey.  If having a mom and dad is better than having two moms only when all other considerations are equal, maybe sexual orientation should be a factor, though not a conclusive one, in the adoption screening process. If gay adoptions should be banned because kids of gays have the same problems as kids of divorced people, maybe a divorcee's new husband shouldn't have any more parental rights over her child than a new lesbian partner would.

Alternatively, if the emotional and financial health of a household renders its configuration irrelevant to its parental suitability, maybe threesomes (a surrogate/donor mom and two gay men) or foursomes (biological mom, biological dad, and each parent's gay partner) should be allowed to adopt kids. The AAP virtually suggests as much. Or maybe, if Connor is right that New Jersey's first gay adoption was wrong because "both adoptive parents died from AIDS," we should play it safe and give lesbians priority over straight couples in the adoption process. Be careful what standard you argue for. You just might get it.

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