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IEET > Rights > Personhood > ReproRights > Life > Access > Health > Vision > Psychology > Contributors > Massimo Pigliucci

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The sciphi of gay adoption

Massimo Pigliucci
By Massimo Pigliucci
Rationally Speaking

Posted: Jan 16, 2014

Gay marriage is rapidly becoming less and less controversial, at least in the Western world. Yes, the battle hasn’t been won just yet, both in Europe and in the US, but we are getting there at a pace that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The next frontier, it seems, is adoptions by gay parents. When I talk to even some of my somewhat progressive friends and relatives, including those in the Old Country, they seem to resist the idea of gay couples adopting children much more than they resisted (if they ever did) the idea of gay marriage. Why?

Time to deploy some good SciPhi, as I termed a hybrid of science and philosophy to be used to address practical personal or societal questions (rather than relying, say, on “common wisdom” or, worse, religious authority). For more on the sciphi approach, how it works, and a number of examples and applications, you may of course take a look at Answers for Aristotle.

SciPhi is relevant because opponents and proponents of these types of societal changes rely on a mix of (hopefully) logical arguments and (sometimes alleged) empirical evidence to make their respective cases. And as is well known to readers of this blog, I think the best way to build (or debunk) logical arguments is via philosophical analysis, while the best way to assess factual evidence is through the methods of the natural and social sciences. So let’s proceed and see where SciPhi gets us in the specific case of gay adoptions.

To begin with, let’s agree that the issue of gay adoptions is, in fact, intrinsically more complex than that of gay marriage. This is simply because the latter involves only consenting adults, while the former affects the (physical and psychological) welfare of children. Which is, of course, precisely why the notion is more controversial to begin with.

Consider two standard arguments opposing gay adoptions, one a priori, the other one empirical: the a priori argument is based on the idea that children have a right to mixed parents (i.e., a man and a woman). The empirical one alleges that children will be at a psychological disadvantage if they are reared in a single-sex family.

The a priori (i.e., philosophical) argument suffers from a number of — in my opinion fatal — flaws, depending on how the idea is cashed out. If it is a matter of children having a right to a mixed sex family because that is the natural state of affairs for human beings, then this is an argument based on an appeal to nature, which immediately runs afoul of the obvious objection that we do all sorts of other things to children (from education to vaccination) that is not natural at all, and yet to which only lunatics and Jenny McCarthy would object to. Not to mention, of course, that there are plenty of perfectly natural situations where children either have only one parent or no parent at all around during their upbringing. While the latter case is usually precisely why we allow adoptions, should we also put children of single mothers or fathers up for adoption on the grounds that they have a right to two parents of different sex? I doubt anyone would seriously pursue that logic, and yet it seems to follow from the way the objection is formulated. 

Moreover, of course, there is no such thing as a natural right to anything (pace the libertarian myth to the contrary). Rights are stipulations of a society, so society is perfectly entitled to change them if better ideas come along and are accepted by the members of that society. After all, until not long ago residents of some US states had a “right” to own slaves, and until even more recently women did not have a right to vote, in any state. Both those rights have been altered, thankfully, so that the first one has been abolished and the second one has been accepted.

What about the empirical (i.e., science-based) argument, then? It is of course perfectly possible in principle that children raised by gay couples turn out to be on average worse off than children raised by mixed sex parents — other things being equal. That last clause is often left out of the discussion, but it is, of course, crucial. There are plenty of situations in which children are faced with psychological or physical abuse while growing up within a two-sex household; and of course there are plenty of children who are orphan and it is difficult to find a two-sex couple willing to adopt them (for instance because they are too old, or have already developed significant behavioral issues). In these instances “other things” are definitely not equal, so it would seem that even in the worst case scenario there is room for sensible gay adoption (gay couples rarely have children by chance, and are often willing to take on problematic kids: see here).

But what about hard empirical evidence concerning the more general case of gay vs straight adoptions? Isn’t it too early to say anything about it, since gay adoptions are a recent phenomenon? Not exactly. There is mounting evidence that children adopted by gay parents do well compared to those adopted by straight parents according to a variety of psychological, social and educational indicators.

This article, for instance, comments on a report co-authored by Benjamin Siegel of Boston University’s School of Medicine. In part it says: “Many studies have demonstrated that children’s well-being is affected much more by their relationships with their parents, their parents’ sense of competence and security, and the presence of social and economic support for the family than by the gender or the sexual orientation of their parents.”

There are, of course, caveats. To begin with, these are not randomized controlled trials. Those are pretty much impossible to do (for practical as well as ethical reasons) for this sort of issue. And the sample sizes are rather small, again by necessity (though this will improve with time). Here is Siegel again: “we’re never going to get the perfect science, but what you have right now is good-enough science. The data we have right now are good enough to know what’s good for kids.”

Then there is the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, which began as far back as 1986. And the good (or bad, depending on your ideological standpoint) news is that “the self-reported quality of life of the adolescents in this sample was similar to that reported by a comparable sample of adolescents with heterosexual parents.”

Another recent study, conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, found that gay parents are “at least” as good as straight ones at coping with the demands of being a parent. And just in case you are worried about homosexuals imposing their agenda on the human race and turning everyone into gays, there was also no evidence that having a gay parent in any way affects the children’s own gender conception in ways that depart from what is expected for their sex.

Finally, there are even good reasons to think that gay parents actually have parenting skills that are uncommon among straight parents. As mentioned above, they are willing to adopt the neediest children, and of course they are in a good position to instill the value of tolerance in their kids.

There are, naturally, dissenting studies, usually to be found only on the web sites of Catholic organizations. One such study conducted by a researcher at the University of Texas has been discredited after the author admitted that he could not separate his (Catholic) faith from his scientific research.

Now, we are talking empirical evidence here, and moreover evidence concerning long-term effects on complex human behaviors, likely to be the result of countless environmental and genetic interactions. So it is conceivable that the preliminary findings accumulated so far will be overturned by research conducted with more rigorous protocols and on much larger samples. But the most reasonable evaluation of the current evidence clearly weighs against the empirically-minded objection to gay adoptions. And social policy cannot afford to wait for decades of further studies, it has to be based on the best current understanding of any given issue, provided we are willing to alter our policies if and when contrary evidence comes in. Moreover, even if our understanding of these matters should change dramatically (indeed, reverse) in the future, it would still be difficult to argue against gay adoption at the least in those far less than ideal cases that don’t meet the ceteris paribus condition.

So to recap: a SciPhi analysis of the issue of gay adoptions pretty much demolishes the a priori argument (by philosophical analysis), and preliminarily rejects the empirical argument (by scientific analysis) against the practice. It seems therefore reasonable to conclude that, at the moment, objecting to gay adoptions is not rational and it is more likely to be the result of (largely religiously instilled) prejudice. Not that that’s going to change the minds of some of my relatives, or of the Pope, of course.


Massimo Pigliucci has a Doctorate in Genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut, and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He has done post-doctoral research in evolutionary ecology at Brown University and is currently Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of biology, in particular the structure and foundations of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy, the relationship between science and religion, and the nature of pseudoscience.
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