Sorry, Justice Scalia: There’s no evidence that gay parents aren’t great parents

March 27, 2013

During Tuesday's oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan asked how same-sex marriage would harm "the institution of marriage". "I did not pick this up in your briefs," she told Charles Cooper, the lead lawyer for the defendants. "How does this cause and effect work?"


Antonin Scalia thinks that the idea that gay couples might adopt children is an argument against gay marriage. (Jewel Sawad -- Getty Images)

Cooper, perhaps wisely, chose to dodge. "I would reiterate that we don't believe that's the correct legal question before the Court," he said.

But Justice Antonin Scalia didn't want a dodge. He wanted an answer, And so he decided to supply one himself: Same-sex marriage may not hurt traditional marriages, but it leads to same-sex parents raising children, and that might, maybe, perhaps harm the children.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Mr. Cooper, let me -- let me give you one -- one concrete thing. I don't know why you don't mention some concrete things. If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must -- you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there's - there's considerable disagreement among -- among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a -- in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not -- do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.

Note Scalia's language. He doesn't say there's evidence that same-sex couples are bad parents to adopted children. He just says there's "considerable disagreement among sociologists." My colleague Sandhya Somashekar looked into this and found that no, there's really not:

Researchers have been delving into the effects of same-sex parenting only since the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the studies involve relatively small samples because of the rarity of such families.

Still, there is a growing consensus among experts that the sexual orientation of parents is not a major determinant in how well children fare in school, on cognitive tests and in terms of their emotional development. What matters more, researchers found, is the quality of parenting and the family’s economic well-being.

“I can tell you we’re never going to get the perfect science, but what you have right now is good-enough science,” said Benjamin Siegel, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “The data we have right now are good enough to know what’s good for kids.”

Siegel co-wrote a report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics last week when it came out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The group looked at more than 80 studies, books and articles conducted over 30 years and concluded that legalizing same-sex marriage would strengthen families and benefit children.

The best study, Siegel said, is the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, which began in 1986 with 154 lesbian mothers who conceived children through artificial insemination. A recent look at 78 offspring found that the children did fine — better, even, than children in a similar study involving more diverse families.

This is, I think, one of those situations where it actually helps to know some gay couples, and perhaps some children in foster homes, too.

We do not live in a country where there are more families that want to adopt children than there are children to adopt. We unfortunately, tragically live in a world where there are children who want to be adopted, but not enough families who want to adopt them.

According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, 400,00 children are living in the United States without permanent families -- or, as they're more commonly called by the children, "forever homes," a term that breaks my heart every time I hear it.

More than 100,000 of these children are, right now, eligible for adoption, which means they can't go back to their biological families. On average, these children will be in foster care for three years before being adopted. Twenty percent will be in foster care for more than five years.

Foster parents are, in most cases, genuine heroes. But being in the foster-care system is not easy for children, or good for them. A world in which more of these children can go to loving, stable forever homes faster is a better world.

The idea that there is something so wrong with same-sex households that it would be preferable for these children to go two or four or six years without permanent parents -- an idea, again, that has little to no evidence behind it, and that is in fact contradicted by most of the evidence -- bespeaks a homophobia so deep that it is hard for me to believe it could persist long among people who actually know any children in the foster system, and who actually know many gay couples.

I'll admit that this is a bit personal to me, as my nephews, whom I love very, very much, are adopted. But adoption by gay couples is one of the best arguments for gay marriage, not an argument against it. We should be begging gay couples to adopt children. We should see this as a great boon that gay marriage could bring to kids who need nothing more than two loving parents. The answer to Kagan's question is that gay marriage doesn't harm traditional marriage. But the answer to Scalia's retort is that he's got it precisely wrong: Gay marriage is good for children in the foster system.

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Sarah Kliff | March 27, 2013