The issue of gay adoption in Tasmania has rekindled debate on whether or not children need a female and a male parent, writes Bettina Arndt.
GAY rights should not include the right to adopt children. That is the message the Tasmanian Government has been hearing since the state's Attorney-General, Judy Jackson, last year proposed new legislation allowing same-sex couples to adopt.
Since then, the Government has found that two-thirds of 400 individual and 900 duplicate submissions sent to the Law Reform Institute's inquiry opposed the proposal and MPs have been showered with correspondence expressing similar sentiments, and Jackson has backed down. Late in March she announced she may not even legislate on the issue.
Two years ago the Carr Government introduced legislation on adoption reform, but it has not addressed the issue of adoptions by same-sex couples. Ditto in Victoria, where last year 43 acts were amended to include same-sex partners but adoption remained restricted to heterosexuals. Western Australia is the only state that has bitten the bullet, having last year passed legislation legalising gay adoption. The Tasmanian Government understands similar proposals are mooted in South Australia and Queensland.
The issue remains controversial and rightly so, says Jacqueline Prichard, a clinical psychologist working in disability services for the Tasmanian Government. Prichard, with her husband, Jeremy, a PhD student at the University of Tasmania law school, has made a submission challenging the assumption promoted by the commission - that there is good evidence that children fare as well with same-sex parents as they do in other families.
Australians have been told often that research shows these children are
thriving. A Sydney University law lecturer, Jenni Millbank, wrote in the Herald
early this year: "Nearly three decades of research has consistently yielded
the same results: the children of lesbians and gay men are in no way
disadvantaged or badly affected."
During the debate on access for lesbian women to IVF, there were media stories, often quoting Millbank, making the same claim. It is a claim also repeated in family law cases involving gay couples. Chief Justice Alistair Nicholson referred to Millbank when he proclaimed in 1996 that sexual orientation is irrelevant in disputes about children.
Dr Ruth McNair, a Victorian GP and member of the Victorian ministerial advisory committee on gay and lesbian health, has a similar conclusion: "Having looked at the international reviews, it seems children raised by gay and lesbian parents do just as well as children in heterosexual families."
But the Prichards say the evidence is not there, quoting recent overseas publications which have concluded the research on homosexual parenting is biased, methodologically flawed and inconclusive. "There is insufficient evidence to support the view that children adopted by same-sex parents will not suffer adverse consequences," the Prichards said in their submission to the Law Reform Institute.
Jeremy Prichard argues that a government has a duty of care towards the children for whom it chooses adoptive parents. "Thus, in a sense, an 'onus of proof' lies upon the state to prove these children will experience no adverse consequences by changing the law to allow same-parents to adopt them," he says. What's wrong with the research? Well, just about everything, according to the recent analyses quoted by the Prichards. The sample sizes were small, there were not enough controls for confounding variables, missing or inadequate comparison groups, non-random samples and unreliable or invalid measurements.
American researchers Robert Lerner and Althea Nagai, experts in the field of quantitative analysis, evaluated 49 studies on homosexual parenting - studies often used to "prove" that a child is not adversely affected by gay parenting. All 49 studies were found to have at least one major flaw.
Lerner and Nagai, who published their 2001 analysis in a paper entitled No Basis: What the Studies Don't Tell Us about Same-Sex Parenting, conclude: "The methods used ... are so flawed that these studies prove nothing ... the studies on which such claims are based are all gravely deficient ...Therefore they should not be used in legal cases to make any arguments about homosexual versus heterosexual parenting."
This conclusion was shared by Professor Lyn Wardle, who criticised the same-sex parenting research in a 1997 article in the University of Illinois Law Review. After examining the use of this research in US legal cases, Wardle argues that until concerns about the current "badly flawed" research are dispelled, "it would not be rational to adopt a public policy endorsing or legitimating homosexual parenting".
Last year a British sociologist, Patricia Morgan, weighed in with her own analysis, Children as Trophies - Examining the Evidence on Same-Sex Parenting. Morgan criticises the research for often including only very young children, which precludes any possibility of picking up long-term effects. She says many of the children spend their formative years in heterosexual families before the homosexual family is formed, which makes findings difficult to interpret.
The few studies which track children to adulthood are also flawed, according to Morgan. She criticises Fiona Tasker and Susan Golombok's work published in Growing Up in a Lesbian Family for comparing children of lesbian women who have PhDs with those of poorly educated lone parents and for downplaying negative effects such as teasing by peers.
Morgan says is it is astonishing that "gushing personal testimonies" by lesbian parents should be "reverentially accepted by public bodies, academics and research institutes who would immediately laugh away the use of similar materials as evidence elsewhere".
Gay lobby groups have responded by pointing out that Lerner and Nagia work for the Marriage Law Project, a legal initiative operated by the Washington-based Catholic University and Morgan's book is published by a British Christian institute. They use the link to religious organisations to allege that the criticisms stem from conservative anti-gay bigotry.
But charges of bias work both ways. It was a lesbian activist - a University of Virginia researcher, Charlotte J. Patterson - who wrote the policy statement when in 1995 the American Psychological Association came out in support of gay parenting. Other professional organisations followed, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) last year using this body of research to endorse adoption by gay parents.
This has led to heated public brawling over the issue. "The AAP's policy statement is more of a commitment to disturbing social engineering than one to good policy based on sound research," said the Physicians Resource Council, demanding that the AAP withdraw its position statement. Citing the "fatal flaws" common to all research in the area, the council proclaimed: "The most one can conclude from the existing data is that more research of better quality is desperately needed. In the absence of conclusive evidence showing that parenting outcomes are the same between same-sex and heterosexual parents, the academy should remain silent."
Jacqueline Prichard agrees there is not enough evidence for any professional body to reach firm conclusions about the impact on children of growing up in lesbian families. "It is appalling that this research is so often presented as if it proves children are doing well in these families when we just don't know that. And the negative results which have emerged in the research are usually totally ignored."
She says she was motivated to get involved in this issue purely by "concern about the misrepresentation of research findings".
She mentions 1996 research by Dr Sotirios Sarantakos, a Charles Sturt sociology professor (published in the journal Children Australia), which found children of homosexual couples perform less well at school than children with heterosexual parents - a result Sarantakos attributes to the stress of dealing with anti-gay prejudice. "It is difficult to accept that living in a family environment that is condemned by the community, in which homosexuals and their children are subjected to discrimination, disadvantage, negative criticism, humiliation, harassment, embarrassment, exclusion, hostility, injustice and media bashing, offers as good a place to grow as that of heterosexual relationships," he writes in his recent book Same-Sex Couples.
Sarantakos says that while not all children struggle with these problems, for others the situation is likely to reduce the child's sociability - as he found when he interviewed children of gay parents about their experiences.
"Yes, I never told anyone about it.. How could I, anyway ... tell them my father is a faggot and sleeps with another man. You know how kids are, they hate these kind of things and love to discover such stories to talk about for weeks ... I had to pretend and live in a different world when at school," one son of a gay father told him.
Sarantakos's research, which compared 58 children of same-sex couples with the same number in matched heterosexual families, found a far higher proportion of children in the same-sex families identified themselves as homosexual or were labelled as such by their parents. He found that result unsurprising because the gay family provides both factors likely to provide the genesis for homosexuality - environment plus genetic make-up.
A review of the literature on this issue by two University of Southern Californian sociologists, Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz, concludes there is evidence supporting Sanantakos's results but this is often downplayed by researchers for fear that it will increase prejudice against gay parents.
A Tasmania University law professor, Kate Warner, who co-wrote the Law Reform Institute issues paper, responds to criticism alleging bias by pointing out that the initial paper relied on summaries of the research, such as those of Millbank or Patterson, which appeared in refereed journals. "We've remedied that, now that we have had longer to look at it," she says, promising a more inclusive coverage in their final report, due for release on May 19.
Warner says the adoption issue will rarely involve an unrelated gay family adopting a child but rather adoption by the partner of the gay mother or father, sometimes following a planned pregnancy - a situation which simply provides more stability for the family.
In unrelated situations, now that birth mothers have a say in the choice of adoptive family, gays are unlikely to be chosen as evidenced by a submission to the institute by a Tasmanian Centacare adoption social worker, Philippa Chapman: she says that no birth mother has requested her child to be placed with same-sex parents.
But as Jeremy Prichard puts it, the issue is one of principle: "However few the actual numbers, the state must be confident that it has good evidence that change in policy will not endanger the welfare of any children."