How much does the lesbian parenting study really tell us?

Carolyn Moynihan
10 Jun 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Right on cue for "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride month" the journal of the American Academy of pediatrics has published a study purporting to show that the children of lesbian couples "do better than their peers" on some measures.

The data comes from the United States National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study and is based on 78 children who were all born to lesbian couples through donor insemination, and who were interviewed at age 17. These were "planned lesbian families".

According to New Scientist:

Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.

Study co-author Nanette Gartrell says the test results leave no doubt as to the success of these couples as parents. Another academic says the results confirm "what most developmental psychologists have suspected". Gartrell says the study supports gay and lesbian adoption.

"It's a great tragedy in this country," says Gartrell. "There are so many children who are available for adoption but cannot be adopted by same-sex couples."

But wait a minute. There are a number of limitations to this study, some of which the authors themselves acknowledge.

* The group with lesbian parents were not randomly selected from a larger population. The authors say:

The NLLFS sample is drawn from first-wave planned lesbian families who were initially clustered around metropolitan areas with visible lesbian communities, which were much less diverse than they are today; recruiting was limited to the relatively small number of prospective mothers who felt safe enough to identify publicly as lesbian, who had the economic resources to afford DI, and who, in the pre-Internet era, were affiliated with the communities in which the study was advertised.

* Within the research framework used, the study did not include a standard self-report or a teacher's report.

* Although the study group and the control group families were similar in socio-economic status, they were neither matched nor controlled for race/ethnicity or region of residence.

In a letter published online in Pediatrics, Professor Walter Schumm, who has served as an expert witness for the State of Florida in a trial concerning gay adoption, points out, "at least 67 per cent of the mothers in the [lesbian family study] had at least a college education compared to approximately 28 per cent of women of similar age in US Census data" so that the effects seen could be partly due to higher levels of education rather than "gender" per se.

Another letter points out that ethnicity and region of residence also differ considerably between the two groups, with the control group having "many times more minorities and many more children from the South" of the US. For example, around 68 per cent of the controls were "white/Caucasian" compared with 93 per cent of the study group. That writer expresses surprise that there was no attempt to adjust the results for these differences, and that the study was accepted all the same by Pediatrics -- the journal of the countryfs leading professional group.

Prof Schumm also notes:

Gartrell and Bos [1] also reported higher levels of aggressive behavior (effect size = 0.49, p < .07) among adolescents whose lesbian mothers reported that their children had been stigmatized. While it is quite likely that stigmatization could lead to higher aggressiveness, it is not impossible that higher aggressiveness could lead to higher levels of peer rejection, which could be interpreted as homophobic.

In previous reports from the NLLFS, other outcome variables were considered that were not reported in this wave. In addition to child adjustment, other variables of interest may include parental preference and expectations for adolescent's sexual orientation, as well as the adolescent's sexual orientation, level of secure attachment, adherence to delayed gratification principles, level of sexual activity, gender flexibility or nonconformity to traditional gender roles, and plans for cohabitation before marriage, among others.

And he makes one other telling point: If two women make better parents than a man and a woman, what does that suggest about two male parents?

While the NLLFS results [1] may appear to support policies favoring the rights of gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) parents, they could also be interpreted as evidence against the fitness of male parents, regardless of sexual orientation, placing gay father couples at risk for being seen as even less fit than couples with only one father. However, at present, there is far less research on gay fathering than there has been for lesbian parenting, leaving us with few empirical answers concerning any effects of gay fathering.

This has been a long post but with so much at stake -- children awaiting adoption -- it is important to know what this study does not tell us about same-sex parenting.