The kids aren’t kids anymore. And they’re still all right.
The children of a first generation of lesbian women to take family-building into their own hands and conceive children through sperm donation are young adults now. And on Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine published new findings from the first study to comprehensively track those children’s mental health trajectories and compare them to those of kids in other U.S. households.
At 25, these pioneers on the landscape of sexual minority were the same as they were reported to be when the same children were assessed at ages 10 and 17: They were just fine. In the new inquiry, 77 of these “index offspring” were compared to a sample of typical U.S. 25-year-olds matched on sex, race or ethnic background, and educational level.
Conclusion: The children of lesbians had no more behavioral or emotional problems than did a representative sample of kids their age. Their relationships with family, friends, spouses or partners functioned just as well. And they were no more likely to have diagnosable or near-diagnosable psychiatric disorders than were young adults who were like them in every respect but the sexual orientation of their parents.
When she started recruiting prospective parents for the study in the 1980s, psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell, the lead author of the new research, said its findings were as uncertain as the investigation’s very existence: In the 1970s and ‘80s, judges dealing with adoption and child-placement cases were urgently calling for solid research to be conducted on the well-being of children raised in such households. But no one was offering to pay for a study that they surely knew would take decades to complete, she said.
As the 1980s proceeded and sperm banks began to relax their rules about prospective recipients, family-minded lesbians began creating families without a heterosexual partner. And, working with an all-volunteer corps of investigators and no institutional funding, Gartrell jumped into the breach to study the phenomenon.
“We knew the only way to capture longitudinal data was to capture it,” said Gartrell, who is a visiting distinguished scholar at UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. In San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., her team set about recruiting lesbian families with children conceived through donor insemination. 8They eventually recruited 154 prospective mothers from 84 planned lesbian families. And last fall, the youngest of 77 “index offspring” still engaged with the study turned 25.
The parents recruited to the study “created families at a time when they were worried about having their kids taken away,” said Gartrell. Many she approached were too anxious to participate at all, she said. Now, “we have reached the point at which we can actually answer some of the questions that have been assumption-based for decades about the offspring,” Gartrell said.
Some 92% of the original families have continued to make themselves available to the researchers, allowing them to plumb the mental health of the children at a crucial juncture: The period of emerging adulthood is when the incidence of many psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression, peaks.
If there were differences in the mental health of these children, Gartrell said, it would surely show up here. But it did not.
The study’s conclusions “correspond with [an] overwhelming scientific consensus,” said University of Oregon sociologist Ryan Light, “that children of LGBTQ families experience no differences relative to children raised in heterosexual families on outcomes related to mental and emotional well-being and education, among others.”
Added Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who has studied child outcomes in families of divorce, the new study “is consistent with most other studies in showing little difference between children raised by lesbian parents and children raised by different-sex couples.”
Since 91% of the study’s subjects are white and most are highly educated, “we need to know more” about the children of less educated and minority same-sex couples, Cherlin added. But the study’s findings, he suggested, are hardly a shock.
If the subject here was the more typical fare of the venerable New England Journal of Medicine – say, a head-to-head comparison of two drugs, or an exploration of a suspected environmental toxin’s effects on children — these new findings would likely win this manuscript an express trip to the reject pile. No statistical difference on any outcome measured? Never mind.
So why is the NEJM devoting what is arguably some of the most coveted publication space in the research world to a study confirming a conclusion that is not controversial among researchers?
Maybe because it remains controversial outside their ranks.
Only five years ago, during Supreme Court deliberations in the California same-sex marriage case Hollingsworth v. Perry, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that “there’s considerable disagreement among sociologists” as to whether “raising a child in a single-sex family … is harmful to the child or not.”
Only three years have passed since the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the U.S. Constitution affords same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry. A major question informing that decision was whether scientific research had achieved consensus regarding how the children of same-sex couples fare.
Indeed, the recently-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion of the landmark same-sex marriage case Obergefell V. Hodges, argued that if the children of same-sex couples experience any psychological disadvantage, it is because “without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, [these] children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser.” And states’ prohibitions of same-sex marriage impose on children “the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life,” Kennedy added.
In short, Kennedy wrote, “The marriage laws at issue here thus harm and humiliate the children of same-sex couples.”
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