Shopping Cart


Are Children Brought Up in Same-Sex Households Disadvantaged?

Monday, 2 July 2012  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

A month or so ago there was considerable media publicity given to the submission to the Senate Inquiry into same-sex marriage by a group called Doctors for the Family, which was, according to their submission, “established in November 2011 to highlight the health aspects of marriage and family and ensure a healthy future for our children”.  I am not a supporter of same-sex marriage, being conservative in relation to the morality of homosexual practice, on the basis of scriptural teaching. Nevertheless, I declined an invitation to be a signatory to this submission, as did a number of Christian doctors known to me, because of concerns about the scientific credibility of the claims it made.

Specifically, the submission stated:

“We believe that marriage as defined is the basis of a healthy society. We submit that the evidence is clear that children who grow up in a family with a mother and father do better in all parameters than children without .

We believe it is important for the future health of our nation to retain this definition and we oppose moves to alter this definition to include “same-sex marriage”.

My first concern is that considerations of the welfare of children growing up in households without a mother or a father, which would include same-sex couples and single people, are strictly relevant to the question of whether adoption, assisted reproductive technologies and surrogacy (which will always be required by gay male couples) ought to be made available to same-sex couples and singles, rather than to the question of allowing same-sex marriage.  Whether or not one agrees with it, the first question has already been resolved in Australian law, and was not the subject of this Inquiry. (Of course legalising same-sex marriage might plausibly further “normalise” same-sex relationships and increase the number of children being brought up in such households- but this argument is not spelt out in the submission, and is to a certain extent speculative, rather than based on evidence.)

My second and major concern is that the claim that “the evidence is clear that children who grow up in a family with a mother and father do better in all parameters than children without” is misleading in the context of an argument about gay marriage. There is a  consensus about the greater stability and social benefits to the children in a two-parent, heterosexual married household when compared with being raised by a single parent, cohabiting couples, adoptive parents and ex-spouses sharing custody. But there is no consensus in relation to a comparison between being raised by a heterosexual couple in stable relationship, and a same-sex couple, nor between children raised by a married heterosexual couple and a married same-sex couple. The evidence is far from clear in relation to this comparison. Most studies have not demonstrated any significant difference in outcomes. Hence, when the submission became public, it was widely criticised, including by AMA president Steve Hambleton, who stated, "there is a growing body of evidence that says there's no difference in their [children's] psychological development, their general health, their sexual orientation." 

But it would have been more accurate to say that there is no evidence from studies so far of any disadvantage to children from being raised by same-sex couples. The limitations of the studies which have been conducted are increasingly being recognised, including small sample sizes, non-representative  sampling, differing understandings of “good outcomes”, and in some cases being carried out by advocacy groups (usually pro-gay, but sometimes conservative). It is important to recognise that same-sex parenting is a relatively recent phenomenon and so long term studies have very small sample sizes. Same–sex partners may also have experienced a (heterosexual) marriage breakdown in the past, which is known to affect children. Further, the issue of what is being compared with what is critical. Since children of same-sex couples are usually conceived using assisted reproductive technologies and in the case of gay men, a surrogate mother, study groups would have to be matched in these respects. But even if much more rigorous studies were designed and undertaken, there is so much variability in the parenting skills and outcomes for children in heterosexual relationships that any difference between comparable same sex and opposite sex households would have to be enormous to be statistically significant.

Finally, the claim made in this submission says nothing about the benefits or detriment to children already growing up in same-sex households if their parents were allowed to marry. It is difficult to see how they could be harmed, and paradoxically, the argument based on the well recognised advantages to children of being raised by parents who are married, although referring in the past only to heterosexual couples, is something of a double edged sword. It may be used to advocate for permitting same-sex marriage, since this could arguably enhance the durability and stability of such relationships, thus benefitting their children.  But as yet there is no evidence that this would or would not be the case, and of course such studies cannot be undertaken where same-sex marriage is not permitted. In the future, such studies may be undertaken in the U.S. where some states have legalised same-sex marriage.

Recent statements by the American Psychological Association (150,000 members), and ratified by the Australian Psychological Society (20,000 members), assert that children fare no worse when raised by same-sex parents, and that therefore same-sex marriage should be supported. In my view this is an unjustified conclusion, as it assumes that the outcomes for children, or rather what can be demonstrated by research in relation to the outcomes for children (which is not quite the same thing), is the only relevant consideration in this debate.  I agree, on this point, with gay researchers (and advocates of same-sex marriage) Meezan and Rauch that “social science cannot settle the debate over same-sex marriage, even in principle. Some people believe the United States should have same-sex marriage as a matter of basic right even if the change proves deleterious for children; others believe the country should reject same-sex marriage as a matter of morality or faith even if the change would benefit kids. Consequential factors are but one piece of a larger puzzle; and, as is almost always the case, social research will for the most part follow rather than lead the national debate”. [i]

It is dangerous to hitch your moral argument to an empirical “fact” which is not verifiable or which may subsequently be disproved. You may believe that children need a mother and a father, as I do, and that children will do better on average when raised by their mother and father than when raised by a same-sex couple, other things being equal. On the other hand, you may genuinely believe that being raised in a same-sex household is not a disadvantage to children, or may possibly even be advantageous in certain respects, and you may believe that allowing same-sex couples to marry will improve the outcomes for their children. That is not the same as claiming that there is currently compelling empirical evidence to support any of these beliefs. Indeed, making such claims will tend to discredit your position rather than strengthen it.

Denise Cooper-Clarke is a medical ethicist and voluntary researcher with Ethos.



Terry Hunter
July 9, 2012, 9:41PM
Denise could you give some instances of the larger puzzle in which "Consequential factors are but one piece"?
I'm struggling to see how one can dislocate in any instance our actions (personal or communal) from the consequences... even if they seem to be minimal within a particular socio-historical time reference.
Neil Bull
July 10, 2012, 9:54AM
Nice article Denise.

I also believe homosexuality is not God’s plan for the world, however the expression of that needs to be one of balance and compassion. I find both sides of the argument are too often pragmatic, overly emotive and are guilty of stretching research to prove their version of truth. Both sides of the argument have a right to expect the same 'measurement' of the respective counter points. So, if Gay Advocates are expected to use research correctly, then Pro-family advocates should also be expected to use a correct approach to research also.

Is Gay marriage detrimental to children? I think it is OK to say 'I'm not sure'. Is it an important discussion? I believe society has an obligation to protect those who can't protect themselves. There doesn't seem to be any overwhelming evidence either way which probably means that if it is detrimental, any negative impact on kids is unlikely to be dramatic (relatively speaking).

Thanks for a thoughtful and honest approach Denise.
Denise Cooper-Clarke
July 10, 2012, 10:14AM
Of course we always need to consider the possible consequences of our actions, in as far as we are able to predict them, as part of moral decision-making. But the theory of consequentialism says that consequences are the only moral relevant consideration. Christian ethics is not consequentialist in this sense. It holds that some things ought not to be done even if good consequences would result eg torturing someone to extract information that could avert a terrorist attack. And that some things ought not to be done even if no bad consequences would result eg the sexual abuse of a dead body (providing there are no friends or relatives to be distressed by this).
Charles Sherlock
July 11, 2012, 10:48AM
Thanks also from me, Denise - your precise and careful distinguishing of categories and research possibilities clarified a number of things for me, not least the means by which same-sex couples are in a position to rear children.
Scott Buchanan
July 11, 2012, 11:10PM
Hi Denise,

Some real food for thought. The following might stimulate some more thinking. It's an article about a very recent study involving comparisons of opposite-sex and same-sex parents - and, if I'm correct, the largest of its kind yet.

Dave Peake
July 12, 2012, 8:37AM
Thanks for this information and the challenge to check out the facts. I know its easy to jump on board with what is claimed to be 'fact' when it supports our position. Ive been guilty. When these 'facts' prove not to be, it certainly undoes our credibility. Thanks again
Byron Smith
July 13, 2012, 5:46AM
Thanks for an intellectually honest piece that acknowledges the limitations of our present knowledge and argues against consequentialism as the sole or perhaps even primary basis of such discussions.
Terry Hunter
July 15, 2012, 3:58PM
Thanks for the reply Denise. But I'd probably argue that your examples of 'consequences' are quite limited in their scope and time-frame.
It appears to me that the Scriptures support a view which says that God has structured the creation with built-in laws that hold for every human and well as non-human function. Once discovered, to attempt to ignore these is to ultimately add to our self destructiveness... even if they take generations to become evident and/or that these actions may also generate other actions which themselves are worse than the original.
Torture cannot be justified because of its consequences not only on the victim, but that it makes (psychologically disturbed) victims also of the perpetrators and all those who have to live with them. The consequences may take time to reveal themselves but they will eventually come out.
The sexual abuse of a dead body surely has consequences on many fronts. Apart from the physical health risks, unbridaled lust and opportunism surely works its way out (unhealthily) in one's other relationships.
To promote the idea that there can be moral reasons for acting or not acting that somehow can be separated from and are not central to the consequences I'm still having trouble seeing.
Denise Cooper-Clarke
July 19, 2012, 10:41AM
Hi Terry,
I agree that the fact that God is creator and has built in his moral framework into creation, including human nature, means that generally speaking, living in accordance with God's laws and biblical principles tends to human flourishing. However, the flourishing on view is eternal rather than strictly "this life" in scope, and sometime obedience leads to oppression and persecution ie "bad" consequences in this life. Consequentialism is a secular ethical theory that is only concerned with earthly consequences. Further, it defines "good" outcomes in particular concrete ways which need to be commensurable- you decide based on the weighing up of good and bad consequences. And the theory is that no actions are right or wrong in themselves.
In your discussion of my examples, you have imported the idea that torture (or abuse of the dead) is wrong and so it must have bad consequences for the perpetrator. But the consequentialist does not begin with that assumption. A committed consequentialist would believe they were doing the right thing. Even if psychological harm to the perpetrator (and others) could be demonstrated empirically, in the case of torture, the good consequences (of saving many lives) would outweigh the bad consequences for a few individuals. In the case of abusing a corpse, the dominant consequentialist theory, utilitarianism, would simply say the individual is the best judge of what brings them happiness. And even if there were well documented harms to the perpetrator, I think most people would feel that to call abuse of the dead wrong because (and only because) it harms the perpetrator, somewhat inadequate.
But ultimately, Christian ethics is not consequentialist because the theory requires us to usurp the place of God and assume responsibility for the welfare of the entire world. Sometimes we need to be obedient and leave the consequences up to God.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles