FactCheck Q&A: was Katy Faust correct on same-sex family studies and kids' rights?
Simon Crouch, University of Melbourne, Jennifer Power, La Trobe University
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Interestingly, whenever you are studying family structure, when you are not talking about same-sex parenting, social scientists tend to agree on three things. Number one, that non-biological parents tend to be more transitory, invest less time and energy and resources into kids and be more dangerous to kids. Number two, they find that any time trauma - a child loses a parent, that trauma is involved and that that can affect a child in a long term and then they also agree that men and women parent differently and they offer distinct and complementary gifts to their kids. So whenever you’re not talking about same-sex parenting, you’re not studying same-sex households, social scientists agree on all of those three things. But suddenly when you study same-sex households, even though all three of those are going to be a factor every single time, suddenly children fare just as well. Now, my question is: do you think that that could possibly be because those studies that show that there is no difference do not use random samples and that most of them derive their participants through recruited and volunteer studies?
The Conversation has recently FactChecked claims that children do best when they have a mother and a father. As that FactCheck shows, the overwhelming body of scientific research suggests that children develop well when growing up with same-sex attracted parents.
Instead of showing that children with heterosexual parents are doing better than children in same-sex parent families, this research compares children from disrupted, unstable families (where parents may have had a same-sex experience at some time) to very stable families where children have been raised from birth by the same two parents.
When asked to provide further evidence for her assertions, Faust pointed to a range of studies, saying that:
The shortcoming of studies on same-sex parenting have been documented frequently, and indeed admitted by the very authors of those studies in almost every case, though the limitations are rarely reported within media. Feel free to examine any study, for example the large study Australia Child Health in Same Sex Families (sic) last year, which states their method using “convenience” samples, rather than randomly derived participants … On studies that show “no difference” between same-sex headed households and that of the married/mother/father household, most studies purporting to show that children raised in same-sex households do as well as other children have been roundly criticised for methodological shortcomings. One meta-analysis of 49 such studies found a number of methodological flaws. These include the lack of any proper hypothesis statement, the problem of affirming the null hypothesis, the lack of proper comparison groups, the problem of measurement error and probability, neglect of extraneous variables, and so on.
Faust’s full response can be read here.
It’s worth noting that, as mentioned in my disclosure statement, I am an author of at least one study critiqued by Faust. She is right that there are limitations in social science research but many social scientists would argue these are almost inevitable. I stand by my research findings and methodology, which were peer-reviewed and approved by the University of Melbourne Health Sciences Human Ethics Subcommittee.
Among the sources provided to support her views was one by Australian researcher Sotirios Sarantakos. This study showed children from married heterosexual couples performed the best, while children from homosexual couples performed the worst, Faust said. Again, all the children in same-sex households in his study had been born in a heterosexual context, undergone family breakdown and the formation of a new family. This was not the case for children in heterosexual couple households.
The quality of the data
Faust said experts agree that non-biological parents are more transitory, invest less time and energy and resources into kids and are more dangerous to kids. She says non-biological parents are among the factors involved “every single time” you study same-sex households.
There are indeed studies that support some of Faust’s statements about non-biological parents. However, many of these studies are looking at stepfathers and stepmothers in heterosexual households – not non-biological parents in the growing number of stable same-sex parented families, particularly those raising children from birth.
The research on biological and non-biological parents in same-sex parent households often points to the strong relationships that so-called “co-parents” have with their children.
Faust also highlighted the shortcomings of research with same-sex families. It’s true there are often limitations in study design, but this is an almost unavoidable hurdle in social science research. It is not possible to randomly assign children to a heterosexual or same-sex parent family as if they were part of a clinical trial.
The problem with random samples is that they tend to draw very small samples of same-sex parents, which makes statistical comparisons difficult and often unreliable. It is very difficult to avoid convenience sampling and still derive an adequate sample size of same-sex parents.
What is important is that researchers are transparent about limitations. They invariably are.
Longitudinal and representative population studies have added strength to a growing number of studies that are repeatedly showing the same positive outcomes in same-sex families, and are not blurred by inappropriate comparisons.
The rights of the child?
Faust contends that children have the right to a mother and a father, saying on Q&A that it is “something that’s recognised in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that your country ratified in 1990”.
Contrary to Faust’s statement, there is nothing in the convention stating that a child has the right to a mother and a father. Throughout, “parents” are referred to without regard to gender or sexual orientation.
… the Convention applies to everyone whatever their race, religion, abilities, whatever they think or say, whatever type of family they come from.
Children with same-sex attracted parents experience stigma. It can therefore be argued that refusing these families access to marriage equality directly contravenes sections of the convention that state children should be protected against all forms of discrimination.
It is true that there is a large body of social science research that supports a number of Katy Faust’s claims about non-biological parents – in a heterosexual context. Indeed, when families undergo significant disruption through parent separation or family instability, whether heterosexual or same-sex, children are often adversely affected. This evidence does not, however, automatically mean that children in same-sex families are at a disadvantage.
It’s true there are often limitations in the design of studies that show children raised by same-sex attracted parents do well, but this is a widely disclosed hurdle in social science research.
When considering studies that make appropriate, like-for-like comparisons, the overwhelming weight of evidence indicates that children with same-sex attracted parents are developing well – even when taking into account the acknowledged limitations of social science research.
Finally, there is nothing in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to say that children have the right to a mother and a father.
This is a fair analysis. There are inevitably limitations in research which compares the social and emotional outcomes of children raised by same-sex parents to that of children raised by heterosexual parents. As acknowledged in my disclosure statement, I have co-authored at least one study that Katy Faust has criticised.
The author correctly explains that the sources Faust cites as evidence also have limitations and potential biases, as do studies which rely on “convenience sampling”. The author also appropriately acknowledges that it is not logical for Faust to compare step-parents with “non-biological” parents in same-sex couples who raise children from birth. The emotional, social and legal context around step-parenthood is very different to that of same-sex couples.
A meta-analysis published in 2010 concluded that research does not support the assertion that children need both a male and female parent to achieve a healthy, well-balanced adulthood.
It is also important to note that not all children who have experienced parental separation or divorce have households (or childhoods) that can be characterised as unstable or damaging. Parental conflict, financial resources and the quality of relationships children have with each parent post-divorce all impact upon children’s wellbeing.
Simon Crouch has received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. He is also the co-author of at least one of the studies criticised by Katy Faust.
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 Department of Health. She is also the co-author of at least one of the studies criticised by Katy Faust.
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