Reply to George: XII. The Dishonest Truth about Same-Sex Parenting

[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George’s widely-read article, “What is Marriage“, which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]

Pages 257-259 and 262-263: In which George — well, read for yourself. Any summary I write sounds incredibly harsh.

Deceitful honesty

You can lie by telling the truth. You can oversleep, race to work, and burst late into a meeting with an apologetic, “My kid was throwing up.” You just neglect to say this happened last week and has nothing to do with why you’re late today.

You’ve spoken the truth and told a lie. My parents taught me it’s not what you say or don’t say. It’s whether you intend to deceive. You don’t get to shrug off your lie with a disingenuous, “It’s not my fault if they drew the wrong conclusion.”

That’s exactly what happens in this section and it troubles me. I’m used to our mid-level opponents quoting studies to denounce same-sex parenting — without  mentioning these studies have nothing to do with same-sex parenting. It’s profoundly disturbing when a respected intellect and Princeton professor like Robert George does it.

Essentially, though, in what follows you’ll see him burst in the room and tell us his kid was throwing up. And he’ll never mention that he really just overslept.

Another of George’s harms to society

George worries that legalizing same-sex marriage would undermine:

the idea that the union of husband and wife is (as a rule and ideal) the most appropriate environment for the bearing and rearing of children — an ideal whose values strongly corroborated by the best available social science.

He footnotes this assertion about opposite-sex married parents. That footnote, however, just refers us back 5 pages to his own parenting discussion earlier in the paper, which I previously skipped and promised to come back to.

I hated this section before and I hate it now. It fails a basic test of intellectual honesty, a failure I’ve seen over and over in our opponents. In that section, George writes:  

Given the marital relationship’s natural orientation to children, it is not surprising that, according to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every indicator of wellbeing when reared by their wedded biological parents. Studies that control for other relevant factors, including poverty and even genetics, suggest that children reared in intact homes fare best on the following indices: [educational achievement, emotional health, and familial and sexual development].

George sins by omission.

What’s the problem? He makes a sneaky switch here. He opens by talking about “wedded biological parents.” His evidence, though, is about “children raised in intact homes.”

You see, these carefully-chosen studies almost always compare kids raised by their wedded biological parents to kids whose parents have divorced — kids who are being raised in single family homes or by a step-parent. For instance, George quotes a study from a “left-leaning research institution”:

[I]t is not simply the presence of two parents, . . . but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.

Wow, even a left-leaning institution endorses both biological parents as the ideal!  But wait. Those brackets around the first letter suggest he picked up his quote mid-sentence. Here’s a fuller version:

Divorce is linked to academic and behavior problems among children, including depression, antisocial behavior, impulsive/hyperactive behavior, and school behavior problems. Mental health problems linked to marital disruption have also been identified among young adults.

Children growing up with stepparents also have lower levels of well-being than children growing up with biological parents. Thus, it is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.

So this left-leaning institution has compared coupled bio-parents to…divorced parents.  And step-parents.  Do you see what’s not there?  Adoptive parents — same-sex or opposite sex.

Funny what happens appears when you don’t chop up the quote.  George also writes:

Recent literature reviews conducted by the Brookings Institution, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the Institute for American Values corroborate the importance of intact households for children

There it is again — the importance of “intact households.”

Adoptive parents are not stepparents.

This matters.  The world includes more than just married bio-parents, single parents, and step-parents. Adoptive parents exist, too — adoptive parents who provide permanent “intact households.” And research indicates that children are much safer with adoptive parents than with step-parents, so take all that step-parent research and throw it out the window. Research is also out there suggesting that adoptive parents invest more resources and spend more time with their kids than married bio-parents. In fact, during the Prop 8 trial, we heard this exchange between attorney David Boise and the expert witness against marriage equality, David Blankenhorn:

Boise: In fact, the studies show that all other things being equal, two adoptive parents raising a child from birth will do as well as two biological parents raising a child from birth, correct?

Blankenhorn: No, sir, that’s incorrect.

Boise: Well, sir —

Blankenhorn: May I say another word on that, please?

Boies: You will have an opportunity on redirect.

Blankenhorn: Okay. It was a clarifying thing and actually supports something you just said. The studies show that adoptive parents, because of the rigorous screening process that they undertake before becoming adoptive parents, actually on some outcomes outstrip the biological parents in terms of providing protective care for their children.

Yep.  In some way adoptive parents can be better than coupled bio-parents.

George is hiding essential information from his readers. He hasn’t established that married bio-parents are the ideal — merely that they tend to be better than fractured homes. That’s not a relevant comparison.  Here’s a list of things he might have fruitfully compared:

  • Kids raised from infancy in intact bio-parent homes vs. same-sexer adoptive homes.
  • Kids raised from infancy in intact opposite-sexer adoptive homes vs. same-sexer adoptive homes.
  • Kids adopted later in life and raised in intact opposite-sexer adoptive homes vs. same-sexer adoptive homes.

But no, none of that. He offers no evidence about same-sex parenting at all.

George betrays his most loyal readers.

In fact, if you dig deeper into George’s own primary source you find this:

First, no one can definitively say at this point how children are affected by being reared by same-sex couples. The current research on children reared by them is inconclusive and underdeveloped—we do not yet have any large, long-term, longitudinal studies that can tell us much about how children are affected by being raised in a same-sex household. Yet the larger empirical literature on child well-being suggests that the two sexes bring different talents to the parenting enterprise, and that children benefit from growing up with both biological parents. This strongly suggests that children reared by same-sex parents will experience greater difficulties with their identity, sexuality, attachments to kin, and marital prospects as adults, among other things. But until more research is available, the jury is still out.

Now the American Psychological Association would disagree. But even if you look at nothing but George’s best source, putting aside what it claims is “suggested” and sticking to actual evidence, the most he can assert is that “the best available social science research” has not been able to establish the superiority of either situation. But George glides over that.

You can see why this is troubling. I’ve encountered this evidentiary sleight of hand from less reputable opponents, from talking heads who make good money spreading bigotry and hate, but I don’t expect it from a man of his reputation. How can he damn same-sex parenting with studies that don’t look at same-sex parents? How can he just…skip that little fact in his presentation? It’s a betrayal, not just of his own integrity, but of the readers who admire him and count on him for truth.

I’m sure Robert George has an answer for this. He must.

I just wish I knew what it was.

Next: George argues marriage equality is a threat to religious freedom.

Addendum: I wrote this entry a while back. It’s just good luck that I get to post it the day after Sen. Franken ripped apart a Focus on the Family spokesman for lying just like this at the Senate DOMA hearings:

To quote the Senator, “I frankly don’t really know how we can trust the rest of your testimony if you are reading studies this way.”

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15 Responses to Reply to George: XII. The Dishonest Truth about Same-Sex Parenting

  1. 1
    Jake Squid says:

    I’ve encountered this evidentiary sleight of hand from less reputable opponents, from talking heads who make good money spreading bigotry and hate, but I don’t expect it from a man of his reputation. How can he damn same-sex parenting with studies that don’t look at same-sex parents? How can just…skip that little fact in his presentation? It’s a betrayal, not just of his own integrity, but of the readers who admire him and count on him for truth.

    His problem is that he believes that heneeds to make this argument. You can’t make this argument and be honest. The two are mutually exclusive. George chooses his convictions over his reputation and hopes not to be caught. It isn’t a realistic hope (we’ve seen this too many times over the years for it to be realistic), but it is his only hope.

    George’s article would be so much better if it weren’t for facts getting in the way of his religious convictions. Or, you know, if he didn’t bother writing it at all.

  2. 2
    Erin says:


    I’m really enjoying reading your analysis. Do you happen to know if the full DOMA hearings are available on the web somewhere?


  3. 3
    Dianne says:

    There’s quite a lot of literature on outcomes in children raised by lesbian couples. It all says they do fine, essentially identical to those raised by straight couples except less prejudiced about homosexuality (though no more or less likely to be gay or lesbian themselves.) There’s less literature on children raised by gay couples, but what exists comes to the same conclusion: they come out the same as those raised by straights or lesbians.

  4. 4
    james says:

    What makes you think children of same-sex marriages are usually adopted from birth? I was under the impression that most children in same-sex marriages/relationships are step-children created in previous failed hetero-sexual relationships – so stats about the impacts of step-parents would seem relevant.

  5. 5
    Rob Tisinai says:

    James, I’m not assuming the kids are adopted at birth (see the last of the three bullet points above). An adoptive parent is not considered a step-parent, no matter how old the child is when adopted.

  6. 6
    Jacky says:

    @ james, While some children of same-sex couples are step-children, stats about the impact of step-parents would only be relevant to such families as families with step-parents. It says nothing about the impact of the sex of the couples. If George wanted to make an argument that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry because step-parents aren’t, statistically, as healthy for children as biological parent he would have to extend his argument to deny opposite sex couples the right to marry a second time, because they too would be step-parents and therefore less healthy for children. George is not making this argument, probably because most people would recognize that it is poor logic and call him on it.

    Step-parents may not be ideal statistically, but in the real world enacting legislation to protect children from being raised by step-parents would require taking children from families where they have one biological parent, preventing single parents from marrying a second time (In which case the child wold still be living with a single parent, not an intact family), or forcing married couples to stay together ‘for the children’ even in situations of conflict or even abuse (there have been studies to show that this is also harmful for children… which I think would be rather obvious). Therefore, even if step-parent families are not ideal statistically, they may be the best of available options for the specific families involved. None of which is particularly relevant to the issue of whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

  7. 7
    Charles S says:

    [Cross posted with jacky (and repeating some of what jacky said) because I didn’t get around to posting for nearly two hours and didn’t think to check if anyone else had posted]


    I don’t know what the fraction of children being raised by same sex couples are the children of one of the parents from a previous marriage. I would expect that number to have been higher in the past and to continue declining into the future as I expect that closeted heterosex marriages are probably becoming less and less common.

    But stats about the impact of step-parents remain not relevant to a discussion of marriage equality: 1) same sex couples with step-children from previous het marriages have existed for decades in places that did not have marriage equality, so rejecting marriage equality doesn’t stop children from being step-children, except to the extent of denying them the benefits of having legally married step-parents; 2) there is no evidence that step-children of same-sex couples are worse off than step-children of opposite sex couples.

    Related to (1), my impression is that step-children are better off with married step-parents than with unmarried step-parents. If that is a correct impression, then marriage equality benefits children who are step-children.

    Related to my initial prognostication, marriage equality is very likely to further decrease the number of closeted heterosex marriages, as it provides a clear same-sex path to those who want to marry and raise a family, so marriage equality will play an important role in decreasing the number of children with step-parents and increasing the number with adoptive parents.

  8. 8
    mythago says:

    He makes this argument because he’s already reached his conclusion: God wants a marriage to be between a man and a woman, who can have vaginal intercourse. Therefore, evidence cannot exist that disproves this view of marriage; if it seems to, clearly it needs to be adjusted.

    When I was in college studying ancient Akkadian texts, one of our professors told us the story of some of the original scholars who decoded these texts, and developed a grammar and understanding of the language. As it turned out, people don’t use language in quite a….regular way, and one guy was caught “correcting” the a cuneiform tablet to match up with the linguists’ post-hoc translations. That’s George all over.

  9. 9
    Susan says:

    I cannot believe that everyone is starting in on this topic at such a late date. Kids have been raised by biological parents/aunts and uncles/grandparents/adoptive parents/total strangers since the beginning of time, and no one has yet suggested that there is anything wrong with this (the “evil stepmother” European fables being an exception I guess). Or that there is any fundamental difference in the result overall.

    Face it. It’s a make-weight. The idea that being raised by biological-daddy-and-mummy is better than all these other ancient alternatives is of very recent (oh, maybe 20 years) origin, and is a tool in the hands of people who, for entirely different reasons, are opposed to same-sex marriage.

    It has nothing to do with children, or what they need, or how things work out for them. That could not be further from the minds of such people as those who make these arguments.

  10. 10
    marmalade says:

    It has nothing to do with children, or what they need, or how things work out for them. That could not be further from the minds of such people as those who make these arguments.

    Yeah, this may or may not be true for folks like George et al. – maybe these guys really do worry about the effects on kids of society accepting open homosexual relationships (I’ve always thought that the social conservatives have a point with the “if you make queer behavior acceptable more kids will grow up to be queer” argument – not because there will be more same-sex attracted people in the population, but because those of us near the middle of het/homo spectra will feel comfortable acting on the homo sides of our selves).

    But I think you’re right that they are USING the issue to hypocritically sway their target audience. Their audience is not true-blue social conservatives or true-blue social progressives, but rather people in the middle who don’t really care that much about gays but really DO care about kids. This group may have a kneejerk “queers-are-icky” feeling but then feel uncomfortable voting to discriminate against their fellow human beings. Those people can latch onto stuff like this George et al. article to justify their discriminatory actions.

    So the George et al. arguments don’t really even have to be very good, because – for the intended audience – they’re completely supported by the audience’s murky uncomfortable feelings about queers. And it helps if George et al. and their ilk can hit soft targets, like concern about kids.

    “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” – MLK

  11. 11
    katedgd says:

    seems to me the relevant comparison is between kids in married vs unmarried same-sex couple households, since banning gay marriage doesn’t ban gay parenting in any way nor does it result in a larger number of kids being raised in straight-married families. my guess–marriage doesnt matter much, orientation doesnt matter much, but education and wealth do.

  12. 12
    Susan says:

    My son and his wife have adopted a Chinese little girl. Her birth parents abandoned her, on the day of her birth, on the steps of some government ministry or other, in China.

    Now she is being raised by a well-paid software engineer and his wife in a 7 bedroom house in Alameda California.

    I suppose that according to the “reasoning” of the right this little girl should be…. left on the streets? Raised by her birth parents (who are unfindable)? We’re open to suggestions, but not very open.

  13. 13
    mythago says:

    Susan @12: Your son and his wife are an opposite-sex couple, so that’s totally OK. If it were your son and his husband, they’d probably say the little girl should be taken away and given to a nice Christian heterosexual couple.

  14. 14
    Susan says:

    Yeh, mythago, I hear the argument. It’s being made by people who already have their minds made up, and who are seeking not information, but “facts” to support the views they already hold.

  15. 15
    Alex Harman says:

    Being cross-examined by Senator Franken has to be among any right-wing professional liar’s worst nightmares; they don’t just get exposed as dishonest, they end up looking utterly absurd.