Prop 8 witnesses debate scholarship on families

Michael Lamb

Michael Lamb

Star witnesses for both sides in the recent Proposition 8 trial agreed on one thing: Children of same-sex parents benefit from having two parents who are happily married to each other.

The conclusion was most stunning from David Blankenhorn, an expert witness for the defenders of Proposition 8.

“I believe that adopting same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children,” he said, during his testimony as the last person to take the stand during the trial.

Dr. Michael Lamb, head of the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge and an expert for the legal team challenging the California same-sex marriage ban, said that, “for a significant number” of children being raised by same-sex parents, “their adjustment would be promoted were their parents able to get married.”

The two men were far from similar in other respects, however.

Drawing on his more than 40 years of experience in developmental psychology, Lamb explained the professional consensus on what key factors affect the quality of a child’s development: the quality of the child’s relationship with his or her parents or the adults raising them, the relationship between those adults, and the circumstances in which the child is being raised. The last consists of economic, social, and emotional supports.

The factors that make a good parent, he said, are the same regardless of the parent’s gender. The important thing, he said, is that that person is committed to the child, loves and focuses on the child, understands the child’s signals and needs, and provides appropriate stimulation and guidance as well as limits.

Lamb contradicted an assertion made by the defense — that children who grow up without a father are more likely to leave school, live in poverty, and commit crimes. Lamb said that the research compared children who grow up with a single heterosexual mother to those who grow up with two heterosexual parents. He said one cannot conclude from such studies anything about a child who grows up with lesbian and gay parents.

When Blankenhorn took the stand on January 26, defense attorney Charles Cooper brought up many of the same studies Lamb had dismissed as irrelevant to lesbian and gay families. Blankenhorn endorsed the statements in them about children faring better when brought up by both biological parents instead of just one. Cooper did not have Blankenhorn attempt to counter Lamb’s criticism of trying to apply those research findings to same-sex couples.

Blankenhorn did speak near the beginning of his testimony about the importance of marriage as an institution that allowed children to grow up knowing both their biological parents. He and Cooper spent little time, however, trying to disprove the various studies Lamb had mentioned that showed children of same-sex parents do just as well on various measures of well-being.

However, another Yes on 8 attorney, David Thompson, tried to cast doubt on those studies during his cross-examination of Lamb. Thompson repeatedly asked Lamb whether any of the studies showing positive outcomes for children of lesbian and gay parents had compared the children of gay parents with control groups of children of married, biological parents. Most did not.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Matthew McGill addressed this during his redirect and had Lamb make an important point: that when comparing same-sex parents to straight parents, researchers must be careful to compare married same-sex parents to married straight parents or unmarried same-sex parents to unmarried straight parents.

The point of Thompson’s initial question—and Lamb’s eventual response under redirect—are worth examining more closely.

Dr. Abbie Goldberg, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Clark University, recently published Lesbian and Gay Parents and Their Children (American Psychological Association: 2009), a book that compiles decades of research on the subject. Goldberg thinks Thompson was off-base in his quest for a control group of married, biological parents. Comparing lesbian- and gay-parent families to heterosexual married biological parents, she wrote in an email, “would conflate sexual orientation with a number of other key variables that may have implications for family and child outcomes.” The variables include the possibility that the children were the product of a previous, heterosexual union, that they were adopted, and that they were biologically related to only one parent. Any of those factors might lead to differences with heterosexual, married, biological parents—but the differences might not be attributable to sexual orientation.

“We can always argue that we need the ‘perfect study,’” says Goldberg, “and yet we should be compelled by the consistency of the many studies that have been conducted which—again—consistently show that children who are raised by lesbian and gay parents do not show negative effects to their psychological adjustment.”

Goldberg is not alone in her thinking. The lead article in the February 2010 Journal of Marriage and Family is “How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?” by sociologists Timothy J. Biblarz of University of Southern California and Judith Stacey of New York University. They discuss the difficulty of separating out the parental factors that could contribute to children’s well being, including gender, sexual identity, marital status, biogenetic relationship to children and the number of siblings.

Based on their best efforts to look at previous research on the subject and compare apples to apples, they conclude, “At this point no research supports the widely held conviction that the gender of parents matters for child well-being. To ascertain whether any particular form of family is ideal would demand sorting a formidable array of often inextricable family and social variables. We predict that even ‘ideal’ research designs will find instead that ideal parenting comes in many different genres and genders.”

Instead of going up against that argument, most of Blankenhorn’s testimony revolved around the historical definition of marriage as an institution, and not on the question of whether children in fact fare better with one parent of each gender.

Blankenhorn spoke at length about his reliance on a variety of anthropological studies, particularly those of Claude Levi-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski, which shaped his thinking on the meaning of marriage.

Dr. Ellen Lewin, a professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies at the University of Iowa, who has written many peer-reviewed publications about lesbian and gay families, said Blankenhorn’s sources, “are so old they have long beards, but the main thing about them is that I don’t think they actually show what they purport to show. . . .

“The basic story,” said Lewin, “is that the most common marriage form among humans is polygyny, and if the folks who claim 5,000 or however many years of human history as a justification want to use that, we’d have to endorse polygyny. Historically, marriage is not about love, or fidelity, or any of that stuff—it’s about devising the most efficient way of hanging onto, or acquiring new property and resources, children among them. The notion that marriage has to do with personal commitments is a very newfangled idea, that works in our culture and other advanced industrial societies. And once you say that’s what marriage is about, there’s no way to keep out same-sex marriage.”

Lewin also noted that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) submitted friend-of-the-court briefs to both the California and Iowa Supreme Courts in support of marriage equality. In the California brief, the AAA stated, “Anthropological research on households, kinship relationships and families—across cultures and through time—provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social order depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.”

It may seem odd that Blankenhorn, a supposed expert on fatherhood, spent so much time on the cultural understanding of marriage and so little time discussing the impact of parents’ gender on children. The defense might have decided that Thompson had already been over that landscape with Lamb, and that Cooper’s brief reprise of the research with Blankenhorn was enough.

Still, after plaintiff’s attorney David Boies elicited Blankenhorn’s testimony, on cross-examination, that allowing same-sex couples to marry would likely improve the well-being of their children, it would have been difficult for Blankenhorn to assert that such marriages were in some way detrimental to the children.

Instead, he was forced into an argument about the need to choose between two conflicting “goods”—what is good for lesbian and gay couples and their children, and what is good for “[renewing] our wider marriage culture.” This left the door wide open for Boies to pin him down on exactly how allowing same-sex couples to marry would weaken heterosexual marriage as a social institution. Instead of answering any of Boies’ questions directly, Blankenhorn seemed to fall back on nitpicking about the questions were worded—to such a degree that the judge felt the need to warn Blankenhorn that he may be undermining his own testimony.

During redirect, Cooper managed to get Blankenhorn to say that domestic partnerships would be an acceptable solution to help same-sex families but yet not weaken the traditional understanding of marriage. Earlier, however, under cross-examination, Blankenhorn confirmed that he had written that domestic partnerships and civil unions might endanger the institution of marriage by blurring the lines between marriage and nonmarriage relationships.

3 Responses to Prop 8 witnesses debate scholarship on families

  1. FlexSF says:

    The religious defenders of proposition 8 … should be prosecuted for the rampant ignorance that they’ve codified into law. In light of all of these facts, they continue to blindly follow the rampant homophobic teachings of their religious corporate leaders without question.

    If proposition 8 is upheld, the legal explanation will need to be extraordinary to contradict the facts that have been illuminated!

  2. […] I explore these quotes and some of the differences between the two witnesses in a piece over at Keen News Service. via Twitter, Facebook, Digg, e-mail, and more 10:04 am Politics and Law « Weekly […]

  3. […] that he didn’t use the “one man-one woman” definition. Combine this with his statement during the Prop 8 trial that “I believe that adopting same-sex marriage would be likely to […]

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