Human Nature

Mary With Children

By William Saletan
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Poor Dick Cheney. He was sure we'd find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We searched and searched, but he refused to give up.

Now he's discovering what it's like to be on the other end of such obtuse certainty. The conservative jihad has turned from Saddam to Sodom. Moralists are denouncing Cheney's pregnant daughter, Mary, for disclosing that she and her lesbian partner will raise the baby together. The moralists are confident that having two mommies is bad for kids. And no evidence to the contrary can dissuade them.

The 30-year search for proof that gay parents are destructive looks a lot like the hunt for WMD. The American Psychological Association has compiled abstracts of 67 studies. Some are plainly biased, and only the latest two or three have avoided the methodological flaws of earlier investigations. But after 67 tries, you'd expect the harm of gay parenting to show up somewhere. Yet in study after study, on measure after measure, kids turn out the same.

One study found that straight parents "made a greater effort to provide an opposite-sex role model for their children," but it doesn't say whether this affected the kids. Another says that children raised by lesbian couples "were more likely to explore same-sex relationships," but it doesn't say that they turned out gay. Other studies say they seldom do.

That's the evidence against gay parenthood. On the other hand, three studies say that lesbians share child care more equally than straight couples do. Others conclude that lesbians are more satisfied with their relationships, that they show more "parenting awareness skills," that non-biological lesbian moms "played a more active role in daily caretaking than did most fathers," and that their kids experience "greater warmth and interaction with their mother."

Such unwelcome findings haven't chastened the anti-gay lobby any more than they've chastened the Bush administration. If the direct evidence doesn't bear you out, look for indirect evidence. So conservatives have developed a subtler argument: On average, children do best when raised by their two married, biological parents.

Let's take this argument one piece at a time. It's true that two parents are better than one. It's also true that married parents are better than unmarried ones. But those aren't arguments against gay parenthood. They're arguments for gay marriage.

The biological part of the argument is more serious. On average, kids do better with parents than with stepparents. Focus on the Family, a leading moralist group, concludes that gay parenthood is unhealthy because "it is biologically impossible for a child living in a same-sex home to be living with both natural parents." Actually, that may change. Scientists recently produced a fertile adult mouse by combining DNA from two females in one embryo. But a lesbian who wants a genetic bond to her partner's baby doesn't have to wait for such technology. She can simply ask her brother, if she has one, to donate the sperm.

If you believe, as Focus on the Family does, that we should stop creating families in which one parent is biologically unrelated to the child, then gays are the least of your worries. By professional estimates, 40,000 children are born each year from donated eggs or sperm. You want to stop non-biological parenthood? Go chain yourself to a sperm bank.

And let's not forget that the case against non-biological parenthood is based on averages. Averages make bad law. The best critique of gay parenting studies is that because many homosexuals are closeted, those whom researchers find and who agree to participate are disproportionately white, well-educated and female. But that's exactly what Mary Cheney is. Should she and her partner abstain from motherhood because they're above average?

The same goes for gender averages. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, says that Cheney's pregnancy is a bad idea because a father "makes unique contributions to the task of parenting that a mother cannot emulate," such as "a sense of right and wrong and its consequences." You must be kidding. Cheney's partner is a former park ranger. They met while playing collegiate hockey. If they want a night out to catch an NHL game, Grandpa Dick can drop by to read bedtime stories about detainee interrogation.

If you're going to base family policy on averages, the chief problem isn't stepparents; it's men. That's what "pro-family" groups keep covering up. According to Focus on the Family, "increased risks of physical and sexual child abuse at the hands of non-biological parents are another serious concern for same-sex families." Nope, not for lesbians. The latest study the group cites actually concludes that the "key risk factors are living with a stepfather or the mother's boyfriend." Of 55 child deaths reviewed in the study, the number caused by a stepmother or by a biological mother in a stepfamily or live-in relationship was zero.

The Family Research Institute says that Cheney's child "will disproportionately associate with homosexuals -- who are as a class considerably more apt to have STDs and a criminal history [and] be interested in sex with children." That's hilarious. Women commit 3.5 percent of single-perpetrator sexual assaults and make up 7 percent of the prison population.

The Family Research Council says that lesbians are dangerous parents because of their "high prevalence of life events and behaviors related to mental health problems," particularly rapes and sexual attacks. But if you look up the study cited by the council, guess who committed virtually all the rapes and sexual attacks? Men.

You want to protect kids? Here's my proposed constitutional amendment: "Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union involving at least one woman."

Or you could just let Mary Cheney raise her child in peace.

<a href='mailto:human@slate.com'>human@slate.com

William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at www.slate.com.


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