When a man and a woman marry and have children, that union has a strong impact on those children and, consequently, a strong impact on the society of which those children become a part. For decades, social science researchers have investigated how family structure affects children by measuring their social and academic progress.
This social science data-gathering dispassionately can help society discern what type of family structure, on average, helps children the most. It can help to guide rationally what policies encourage and promote the kind of stable family life that leads to human flourishing.
“Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family structure headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage,” wrote Kristen Anderson Moore, Susan Jekielek and Carol Emig in a research summary for ChildTrends. “(I)t is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.”
There is widespread agreement about this fact when looking at traditional marriage. Now, as courts, legislators and social scientists turn to the hotly contested issue of same-sex marriage, should this wealth of existing evidence about family structure be ignored? No. In fact, family structure research is more relevant than ever before.
This week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver will hear an appeal of the federal district court decision that temporarily struck down Utah’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Other state constitutions are also being litigated. A challenge to Oklahoma’s traditional definition of marriage will be heard soon by the same three-judge appellate panel.
Emotions about this issue are understandably high. Indeed, emotion is at the heart of the effort to redefine marriage from a conjugal relationship of responsibility for the rearing of children to a romantic attachment for adults. But as our federal judicial system considers a wholesale change to how the foundational institution of marriage is defined within our federal constitutional system, reason needs to hold sway.
We applaud the vigorous yet respectful defense of traditional marriage mounted by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes. In addition to the constitutional arguments for reversing the district court decision, Utah citizens and lawmakers have many sound and rational policy reasons to retain the traditional definition of marriage.
Utah highlighted these reasons by noting social science evidence throughout its opening brief, focusing on the impact of family structure from dozens of studies, journal articles and books. The brief showed how “the two sexes bring different talents to the parenting enterprise,” how “the weight of scientific evidence seems clearly to support the view that fathers matter,” how the absence of a father places a daughter at special risk for early sexual activity, that children in same-sex households experience lower high school graduation rates, and that there are higher rates of depression, delinquency and substance abuse among children conceived through sperm donation.
Some advocates of same-sex marriage dismiss or attempt to discredit this research. In the Utah case, the plaintiffs largely ignored the state’s evidence. In same-sex battles in other states, including Michigan, critics engaged in ad hominem attacks, attempting to rebut research by pointing out how many sociology professors at the researcher’s university disagree with the implications of his study.
Some point to the American Psychological Association’s brief on lesbian and gay parenting, which looked at 59 studies on the subject and concluded that “not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.”