Last Friday, a Utah judge reversed an order he had issued just three days earlier thatwould have removed a young girl from her home because her foster parents are lesbians. Under fierce pressure that even included grumbling by the state’s Republican governor, Judge Scott Johansen issued a temporary reversal after first ruling that it was “not in the best interest of children to be raised by same-sex couples.” The shift is good news for the girl and her foster parents, April Hoagland and Beckie Peirce; for child welfare advocates; and for anyone concerned with fairness, equality, or evidence-based policy.
Yet the matter is far from over. Johansen set a December date for the girl’s fate to be argued at a hearing. And the judge’s revised order left intact a critical foundation of his initial reasoning: what the judge still calls “a concern that research has shown that children are more emotionally and mentally stable when raised by a mother and father in the same home.”
Hoagland and Peirce told a news station they believe the judge relied on his religious beliefs to make his decision, something that would be plainly unconstitutional. Does the judge have any sound reason to give straight couples preference over same-sex ones?
Asked in court to cite any of the “myriad” studies he reportedly referenced in ruling against the same-sex couple, Johansen declined. And for good reason: There are none. A research team I direct, based at Columbia Law School, conducted one of the most exhaustive analyses of peer-reviewed studies on same-sex parenting published over the last 30 years. Our initiative, the What We Know Project, started with the question, “What does the scholarly research say about the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents?” Our results, which are constantly updated as new research emerges, are posted at our site, with links to the studies or their abstracts.
What did we find? Currently, there are 77 scholarly articles that address this question. Of those, 73—the vast majority—found that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as their peers. Could the four outliers be the “myriad” studies Johansen is referencing? Not if he’s done an ounce of homework and is being remotely honest about what the research says. For starters, basing a ruling that breaks a family apart on four studies that are contradicted by 73 others is questionable on its face. But equally important, these four studies do not actually prove what their authors claim they do, and anyone who looks at them closely can see that.
Reviewing the studies clarifies that they all suffer from the same fundamental flaw: While the authors tout the importance of large, random samples and imply that that’s what they’re using, they in fact rely on samples that are anything but. Here’s how this works: They start with very large samples that come from a reliable dataset like the census. In some cases the original sample is as large as several million people. Out of this much ballyhooed sample size, researchers struggle to identify families in which a stable, same-sex couple raised children from infancy—the relevant standard, since what’s usually being debated, as in the Utah case, is whether such a couple ought to be allowed to parent. So researchers create their own definitions for what constitutes an “LGB” family, and they are uniformly very loose. In some cases they just ask children if a parent ever had a same-sex relationship and throw the “yes” kids into a category called “LGB families”—even though they are a world apart from a situation in which children are raised by a stable, same-sex couple. This is not to say one type of family is superior to another, just that we must compare apples to apples to yield any useful conclusions about same-sex parenting. (Many of the gay-supportive studies also use small samples, but their authors don’t suggest otherwise, and—most important—they are actually studying children raised by same-sex parents.)