March 25, 2013
On March 26 and 27, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases challenging the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, they will consider the constitutionality of the definition as enshrined in the California state constitution by voters in that state when they adopted “Proposition 8” in 2008 (effectively reversing the decision of the California Supreme Court to impose same-sex “marriage” earlier that year). In Windsor v. United States, they will consider the constitutionality of the same definition of marriage being adopted for all purposes under federal law through the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In anticipation of those oral arguments, I am running a series of blog posts with questions and answers related to the issue. Today I look at what is perhaps at the crux of the debate—the question of what harm marriage redefinition would do.
Q—What harm would it do to the institution of marriage if we redefine it to include same-sex couples?
At the outset, it is worth noting that this question is often framed in a rather misleading way: “What harm would a same-sex couple getting married do to your opposite-sex marriage?” The issue, however, is not how any one couple’s marriage would affect any other specific couple’s marriage—the issue is how changing the definition of marriage under the law would change the social institution of marriage.
Giving unique privileges and a unique status to the only type of relationship that can ever result in the natural creation of another human being sends an important message to society. Contrary to the charges of those who would redefine marriage, that message has nothing to do with “sexual orientation” as such. It simply sends the message that relationships of a type which can result in natural reproduction are unique, and are uniquely valuable to society; and it further sends the message that children benefit uniquely from being raised by their own mother and father (as well as the message that a man and woman should take responsibility for children produced by their union).
If “marriage” is redefined to include same-sex couples, it will of course not abolish civil marriage as an institution, or prevent opposite-sex couples from marrying and having children. However, it will effectively negate—and indeed, reverse—the social message that privileging “marriage” over other relationships would send.
Instead of sending the message that potentially procreative relationships are uniquely valuable and that children being raised by their mother and father is uniquely valuable, the message to society will be the exact opposite. Since same-sex relationships, which are intrinsically infertile and can never result in natural procreation, would be treated as identical under the law to opposite-sex relationships which are the only type that can ever result in natural procreation, the explicit message to society would be that there is nothing uniquely valuable about the very reproduction of the human race. This would be a shocking denial of a reality that is literally fundamental to human existence.
By the same token, same-sex couples never provide a child with a home that includes the care of both their mother and father, and on the contrary deliberately and permanently deny a child such a home. Treating such couples—which are deliberately motherless or fatherless—in a way identical to couples that provide both a mother and father would send the message to society that there is nothing uniquely valuable about a child being raised by his or her own mother and father.
Sending these messages—officially denying, as a matter of public policy, the unique value and importance of reproduction, and of mothers and fathers—would inevitably have an impact on the behavior of people in society.
The following harms would be the predictable results (these are adapted and updated from my 2010 Family Research Council booklet, The Top Ten Harms of Same-Sex “Marriage):
- Fewer children would be raised by a married mother and father.
The greatest tragedy resulting from the legalization of homosexual marriage would not be its effect on adults, but its effect on children. For the first time in history, society would be placing its highest stamp of official government approval on the deliberate creation of permanently motherless or fatherless households for children.
There simply cannot be any serious debate, based on the mass of scholarly literature available to us, about the ideal family form for children. It consists of a mother and father who are committed to one another in marriage. Children raised by their married mother and father experience lower rates of many social pathologies, including:
- premarital childbearing;[i]
- illicit drug use;[ii]
- health, emotional, or behavioral problems;[iv]
- or school failure or expulsion.[vi]
These benefits are then passed on to future generations as well, because children raised by their married mother and father are themselves less likely to cohabit or to divorce as adults.[vii]
In a perfect world, every child would have that kind of household provided by his or her own loving and capable biological parents (and every husband and wife who wanted children would be able to conceive them together). Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.
But the parent who says, “I’m gay” is telling his or her child that he or she has no intention of providing a parent of both sexes for that child. And a homosexual who “marries” someone of the same sex is declaring that this deprivation is to be permanent—and with the blessing of the state.
Homosexual activists argue that research on homosexual parenting has shown no differences among the children raised by homosexuals and those raised by heterosexuals. Even leading professional organizations such as the AmericanAcademyof Pediatrics, under the influence of homosexual activists, have issued policy statements making such claims.[viii]
A close examination of the actual research, however, shows that such claims are unsupportable. The truth is that most research on “homosexual parents” thus far has been marred by serious methodological problems.[ix] However, even pro-homosexual sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz report that the actual data from key studies show the “no differences” claim to be false.
Surveying the research (primarily regarding lesbians) in an American Sociological Review article in 2001, they found that:
- Children of lesbians are less likely to conform to traditional gender norms.
- Children of lesbians are more likely to engage in homosexual behavior.
- Daughters of lesbians are “more sexually adventurous and less chaste.”
- Lesbian “co-parent relationships” are more likely to break up than heterosexual marriages.[x]
The most comprehensive study of children raised by parents who had homosexual relationships, conducted by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus and published in 2012, showed that such children suffered numerous disadvantages—relative to children raised in an “intact biological family,” but also in comparison to other family forms.[xi]
Critics of the Regnerus study questioned its relevance to the marriage debate, because some of the children of homosexual parents never lived with that parent and a partner, and almost none were raised by a same-sex couple from birth. (This illustrates, in part, how rare such “stable” same-sex households are in the real world). However, a 1996 study by an Australian sociologist compared children raised by heterosexual married couples, heterosexual cohabiting couples, and homosexual cohabiting couples. It found that the children of heterosexual married couples did the best, and children of homosexual couples the worst, in nine of the thirteen academic and social categories measured.[xii]
As scholar Stanley Kurtz says,
If, as in Norway, gay marriage were imposed here by a socially liberal cultural elite, it would likely speed us on the way toward the classic Nordic pattern of less frequent marriage, more frequent out-of-wedlock birth, and skyrocketing family dissolution. In the American context, this would be a disaster.[xiii]
- More children would grow up fatherless.
This harm is closely related to the previous one, but worth noting separately. As more children grow up without a married mother and father, they will be deprived of the tangible and intangible benefits and security that come from that family structure. However, most of those who live with only one biological parent will live with their mothers. In the general population, 79% of single-parent households are headed by the mother, compared to only 10% which are headed by the father.[xiv] Among homosexual couples, as identified in the 2000 census, 34% of lesbian couples have children living at home, while only 22% of male couples were raising children.[xv] The encouragement of homosexual relationships that is intrinsic in legalization of same-sex “marriage” would thus result in an increase in the number of children who suffer a specific set of negative consequences that are clearly associated with fatherlessness.
Homosexual activists say that having both a mother and a father simply doesn’t matter—it’s having two loving parents that counts. But social science research simply does not support this claim. Dr. Kyle Pruett of YaleMedicalSchool, for example, has demonstrated in his book Fatherneed that fathers contribute to parenting in ways that mothers do not. Pruett declares, “From deep within their biological and psychological being, children need to connect to fathers … to live life whole.”[xvi]
Children—both sons and daughters—suffer without a father in their lives. The body of evidence supporting this conclusion is large and growing.[xvii] For example, research has shown that “youth incarceration risks in a national male cohort were elevated for adolescents in father-absent households,” even after controlling for other factors.[xviii] Among daughters, “father absence was strongly associated with elevated risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy.”[xix] Even researchers supportive of homosexual parenting have had to admit that “children raised in fatherless families from infancy,” while closer to their mothers, “perceived themselves to be less cognitively and physically competent than their peers from father-present families.”[xx]
President Obama has also acknowledged the importance of fathers. In a speech during his 2008 campaign for President, he said this:
“We know the statistics - that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”[xxi]
Some lesbian couples are deliberately creating new children in order to raise them fatherless from birth. It is quite striking to read, for example, the model “Donor Agreement” for sperm donors offered on the Human Rights Campaign website, and to see the lengths to which they will go to legally insure that the actual biological father of plays no role in the life of a lesbian mother’s child.[xxii] Yet a recent study of children conceived through sperm donation found, “Donor offspring are significantly more likely than those raised by their biological parents to struggle with serious, negative outcomes such as delinquency, substance abuse, and depression, even when controlling for socio-economic and other factors.” [xxiii] Remarkably, 38% of donor offspring born to lesbian couples in the study agreed that “it is wrong deliberately to conceive a fatherless child.”[xxiv]
One of the most fundamental tasks of any society is to reproduce itself. That is why virtually every human society up until the present day has given a privileged social status to male-female sexual relationships—the only type capable of resulting in natural procreation. This privileged social status is what we call “marriage.”
Extending the benefits and status of “marriage” to couples who are intrinsically incapable of natural procreation (i.e., two men or two women) would dramatically change the social meaning of the institution It would become impossible to argue that “marriage” is about encouraging the formation of life-long, potentially procreative (i.e., opposite-sex) relationships. The likely long-term result would be that fewer such relationships would be formed, fewer such couples would choose to procreate, and fewer babies would be born.
There is already evidence of at least a correlation between low birth rates and the legalization of same-sex “marriage.” At this writing [from March 2011 publication—update pending], five U.S. states granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As of 2007, four of those five states ranked within the bottom eight out of all fifty states in both birth rate (measured in relation to the total population) and fertility rate (measured in relation to the population of women of childbearing age).[xxv]
Even granting marriage-related benefits to same-sex couples is associated with low birth and fertility rates. As of March 2011 there were sixteen states which offered at least some recognition or benefits to same-sex relationships.[xxvi] Twelve of these sixteen states ranked in the bottom twenty states in birth rate, while eleven of them ranked in the bottom seventeen in fertility rate. Vermont, the first state in the U. S. to offer 100% of the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples through passage of its “civil unions” law in 2000[xxvii], ranked dead last in both birth rate and fertility rate.[xxviii]
Similar data are available on the international level. In March 2011 there were ten countries which permitted same-sex “marriage.”[xxix] Six of these ten fell well within the bottom quarter in both birth rates and fertility rates among 223 countries and territories. All ten fell below the total world fertility rate, while only South Africa had a birth rate that was higher (barely) than the world rate.[xxx]
It could be argued that the widespread availability and use of artificial birth control, together with other social trends, has already weakened the perceived link between marriage and procreation and led to a decline in birth rates. These changes may have helped clear a path for same-sex “marriage,” rather than the reverse.[xxxi] Nevertheless, legalization of same-sex “marriage” would reinforce a declining emphasis on procreation as a key purpose of marriage—resulting in lower birth rates than if it had not been legalized.
Of course, there are some who are still locked in the alarmism of the 1960’s over warnings of over-population.[xxxii] However, in recent years it has become clear, particularly in the developed world, that declining birth rates now pose a much greater threat. Declining birth rates lead to an aging population, and demographers have warned of the consequences,
… from the potentially devastating effects on an unprepared welfare state to shortages of blood for transfusions. Pension provisions will be stretched to the limit. The traditional model of the working young paying for the retired old will not work if the latter group is twice the size of the former… . In addition, … healthcare costs will rise.[xxxiii]
The contribution of same-sex “marriage” to declining birth rates would clearly lead to significant harm for society.
[i] Kristin A. Moore, “Nonmarital School-Age Motherhood: Family, Individual, and School Characteristics,” Journal of Adolescent Research 13, October 1998: 433-457.
[ii] John P. Hoffman and Robert A. Johnson, “A National Portrait of Family Structure and Adolescent Drug Use,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60, August 1998: 633-645.
[iii] Chris Coughlin and Samuel Vucinich, “Family Experience in Preadolescence and the Development of Male Delinquency,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58, May 1996: 491-501.
[iv] Debra L. Blackwell, “Family structure and children’s health in the United States: Findings from the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007,” Vital and Health Statistics, Series 10, No. 246 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, December 2010). Online at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_10/sr10_246.pdf
[v] Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, America’s Children: Key Indicators of Well-Being 2001,Washington,D.C., p. 14.
[vi] Deborah A. Dawson, “Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, August 1991: 573-584.
[vii] Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, A Generation at Risk: Growing Up in an Era of Family Upheaval, Cambridge,Massachusetts:HarvardUniversity Press, 1997, pp. 111-115.
[x] Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter,” American Sociological Review 66 (2001), pp. 159-183.
[xii] Sotirios Sarantakos, “Children in three contexts: Family, education and social development,” Children Australia 21, No. 3 (1996): 23-31.
[xiii] Stanley Kurtz, “The End of Marriage in Scandinavia: The ‘conservative case’ for same-sex marriage collapses,” The Weekly Standard 9, No. 20 (February 2, 2004): 26-33.
[xiv] Rose M. Kreider, “Living Arrangements of Children: 2004,” Current Population Reports P70-114 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau), February 2008, Figure 1, p. 5.
[xv] Simmons and O’Connell, op. cit., Table 4, p. 9.
[xvi] Kyle D. Pruett, Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 16.
[xviii] Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14(3), 2004, p. 388.
[xix] Bruce J. Ellis, John E. Bates, Kenneth A. Dodge, David M. Fergusson, L. John Horwood, Gregory S. Pettit, Lianne Woodward, “Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?” Child Development Vol. 74, Issue 3, May 2003; abstract online at:
[xxii] Human Rights Campaign, Donor Agreement; online at:
[xxiii] Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval D. Glenn, and Karen Clark, My Daddy’s Name is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived Through Sperm Donation (New York: Institute for American Values, 2010) p. 9.
[xxiv] Ibid., Table 2, p. 110.
[xxv] Joyce A. Martin, Brady E. Hamilton, Paul D. Sutton, Stephanie J. Ventura, T. J. Mathews, Sharon Kirmeyer, and Michelle J. K. Osterman, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, “Births: Final Data for 2007,” National Vital Statistics Reports Vol. 58, No. 24, August, 2010, Table 11. Rankings calculated by the author.
[xxix] The Netherlands, Spain, Canada, Belgium, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, and Argentina. See Dan Fastenberg, “A Brief History of International Gay Marriage,” Time, July 22, 2010; http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2005678,00.html
[xxxi] Note, for example, that in 2007, the last year for which final birth rate and fertility rate data are available, only one state (Massachusetts) had legalized same-sex “marriage.”
[xxxii] The most well-known representative being Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968).
[xxxiii] Jonathan Grant and Stijn Hoorens, “Consequences of a Graying World,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2007; online at: http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0629/p09s02-coop.html; see also Jonathan Grant, Stijn Hoorens, Juja Sivadasan, Mirjam van het Loo, Julie DaVanzo, Lauren Hale, Shawna Gibson, William Butz, Low Fertility and Population Ageing: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Options (Santa Monica, Calif.: TheRAND Corporation, 2004).