Making the Case:

The Argument from Child Welfare

Do children fare better when raised by their biological parents?

Children are morally entitled to be raised by their biological father and mother, whenever possible. The Argument from Child Welfare presents empirical evidence that this moral entitlement is reflected in the measurable well-being of children.

Social science research has demonstrated that children tend to thrive best when raised by their biological parents, and that mothers and fathers therefore each contribute something unique and valuable to the parenting enterprise. Children raised by their mother and father have a better chance of being prosperous, healthy and well-educated in adulthood. Man-woman marriage policies enshrine this arrangement as a social ideal worth pursuing, while same-sex marriage undermines this ideal altogether.

Introduction

The Argument from Parental Ideal makes the case that children are morally entitled to be born to and raised by their biological father and mother, whenever this is possible. The Argument from Child Welfare presents empirical evidence that this moral entitlement is reflected in the measurable well-being of children. Not only are children morally entitled to be raised by their biological father and mother, but social science research has demonstrated that they tend to thrive best in that environment. Thus, we are no longer talking only about philosophical rights and moral entitlements, because the material, psychological, emotional, and social welfare of children may be at stake in the marriage debate.

The Advantages of Biological Parenting

Research has thoroughly demonstrated that children raised by their biological parents in a stable, intact home usually have distinct advantages when compared with children raised by adoptive parents, step-parents, divorced parents, cohabiting parents, or other parental arrangements. This conclusion has been consistently replicated by social scientists for the past 3-4 decades.1 A non-partisan research foundation called Child Trends recently published their survey of the research, which were that “it is not simply the presence of two parents … but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.” That is, children don’t just need any two parents, they need their parents. They continue:

[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes than do children in intact families headed by two biological parents.2

Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur of Princeton University have concluded, based on their longitudinal studies of 20,000 children, that “[c]hildren who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents … regardless of whether the resident parent remarries.”3 This research demonstrates that it is the child’s relationship to their biological parents that matters — not just that they have two parents. After surveying the existing research on the issue, the Center for Law and Social Policy concluded that:

Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step- or cohabiting-parent households. Compared to children who are raised by their married parents, children in other family types are more likely to achieve lower levels of education, to become teen parents, and to experience health, behavior, and mental health problems.4

The Brookings Institution, the Woodrow Wilson School of Pubic and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the Institute for American Values, have each surveyed the existing research and have arrived at the same conclusion.5

Same-sex Marriage and the Biological Ideal

There is not a lot of quality research that directly compares the outcomes of children raised by same-sex parents with other children (we will discuss this in depth in the Objection from Research [Coming Soon]). However, on the face of it, same-sex couples cannot be the natural biological parents of their children. Same-sex parents must always be either a blended family or an adoptive family (or produced using assistive reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization or surrogate motherhood). All of these ultimately deprive children of their biological father or mother (or both), and thus we would not expect these arrangements to be equivalent to the biological ideal.

In the Argument from Parental Ideal, we argued that because of the intrinsic connection between marriage and parenting, marriage policies designate what the law will treat as the ideal parental unit. Therefore, formalizing same-sex marriage treats same-sex couples as an equally ideal parental unit in the eyes of the law. Because a same-sex couple cannot be the natural, biological parents of their children, formalizing same-sex marriage will signal that biological parenthood is no longer the ideal. It signals that children do not need their biological father or mother, and that motherhood and fatherhood are each dispensable.

Because public policy influences the behaviors of real people in the real world, weakening the ideal of biological parenthood will almost inevitably lead to fewer children being raised by their biological parents. In the Argument from Marital Norms, we argued that formalizing same-sex marriage would erode marital norms (such as permanence and fidelity), since the revisionist view of marriage provides no strong reason for them to be essential expectations of marriage couples, rather than matters of personal preference. More potently, dismantling biological parenting as the ideal actively negates the idea that children need their fathers or mothers, and would therefore erode the expectation that fathers and mothers marry before having children, or that they stay with their spouses and children and fulfill their vital family duties even when times get rough. If redefining marriage really does lead to more divorce and fewer children born into stable marriages, the material and psychological of children — far beyond those raised by same-sex couples — may be jeopardized.

We are not saying that same-sex couples cannot be good parents to their children any more than we are saying that adoptive parents or single mothers cannot be good parents. Children can be — and often are — well-raised by people who are not their biological father and mother (and often for good reasons), and this includes same-sex couples. The argument here is not related to any parents’ abilities as a caregiver, and is in fact completely unrelated to the outcomes of children raised by same-sex couples (when compared with other adoptive parents). Instead, the argument is that a child’s biological father and mother each contribute something valuable and are ultimately irreplaceable in their role as parents, and that formalizing same-sex marriage actively negates this ideal.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Argument from Children makes an empirical case that biological parenthood matters in more than just abstract, philosophical ways. Formalizing same-sex marriage will change what we treat as the ideal, and undermining the ideal of biological parenting will lead to fewer children raised by their biological parents. This will demonstrably harm children, as children raised by their own mother and father have a better chance of being prosperous, healthy and well-educated in adulthood.


Questions and Answers

Are you saying that a child who is raised by people other than her married, biological parents is worse off than her peers?

Not necessarily. The research does not — and cannot — predict anything about the experiences of individual children. Rather, the research reports average effects. Children raised in a number of different family structures can become successful, and there are often good reasons why children cannot be raised by their biological parents (abuse, neglect, death, etc.). The research, however, does indicate that on average, children fare better when they are raised by their biological parents.

Children fare better in wealthy homes — why not ban the poor from marrying?

First of all, because there is no prevailing moral theory that children are entitled to be born to and raised by wealthy parents, but there is a prevailing moral theory that children are entitled to be born to and raised by their biological parents. This moral theory is so prevalent that it has been encoded into the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children.

Social science can only tell us what is the case, and it cannot tell us what ought to be the case. It is our moral worldview that determines how we make sense of empirical evidence, and how that evidence should inform public policy. Without a moral worldview that elevates biological parenting as the ideal, the social science research we have cited would be meaningless with regards to marriage policy.

For this reason, the Argument from Child Welfare should never be used except in conjunction with the Argument from Parental Ideal, and the Argument from Parental Ideal should never be treated as true because of the Argument from Child Welfare. The empirical evidence does not and cannot demonstrate what is ultimately a moral ideal.

What is the difference between the Argument from Child Welfare and the Argument from Parental Ideal?

The Argument from Parental Ideal makes a moral or philosophical case, while the Argument from Child Welfare makes an empirical case. We can argue that children are morally entitled to be raised by their biological parents regardless of the conclusions of social science research, so the Argument from Parental Ideal should be treated as a wholly separate argument. The Argument from Child Welfare makes the additional (but distinct) claim that this moral reality is borne out in the measurable well-being of children.

Why can’t the ideal just be two loving parents (of whatever gender), instead of biological parenthood?

Because there’s no reason to stop at two, unless we are trying to mimic a natural family order of some kind. Are two parents better than one, simply because more is better? Why not hold three or more loving parents as the ideal? Ultimately, the reason our moral intuitions tell us that children need two parents (instead of three, four, or ten) is because we intuitively recognize biological parenthood as an ideal worth striving for, and that when this ideal cannot be met, we ought to mimic it the best we can.

Why can’t we elevate biological parenthood as the ideal, but then opposite-sex and same-sex adoptive parents as equally good next-best options?

More research needs to be done before we know for certain whether opposite-sex and same-sex adoptive parents are actually comparable in terms of child-outcomes. But ultimately, our next-best options should strive to mimic the biological ideal. That is the only rationale for elevating two-parent families as preferable, rather than three-parent or five-parent families. And if our public policies strive to mimic the ideal with number, why not with gender too? If the basis for having two parents is to mimic the natural family order, then why should we arbitrarily conclude that other intrinsic features of the ideal are not also worth emulating?

Doesn’t research show that there is no difference between children raised by same-sex parents and children raised by a father and a mother?

No, it doesn’t. For more information, check out the Objection from Research [Coming Soon].


The Logic

  • (A) Children of same-sex couples — by nature — cannot both be the biological parents of the child.
  • (B) Formalizing same-sex marriage treats same-sex couples as an equally ideal parental unit.
  • ∴ Formalizing same-sex marriage will signal that biological parenthood is no longer the ideal.
  • (C) What the law treats as ideal as the ideal parenting arrangement influences the decisions of individual parents.
  • (D) Formalizing same-sex marriage will signal that biological parenthood is no longer the ideal.
  • ∴ Formalizing same-sex marriage will lead to fewer children raised by their biological parents.
  • (E) Children tend to fare better when raised by both of their biological parents.
  • (F) Formalizing same-sex marriage will lead to fewer children raised by their biological parents.
  • ∴ Children will be harmed if we formalize same-sex marriage.

References and Further Readings

  1. Byrd, A. Dean. “Conjugal marriage fosters healthy human and societal development.” What’s the Harm (2008): 3-26.
  2. Moore, Kristin A., Susan M. Jekielek, and Carol Emig. Marriage from a Child’s Perspective: How Does Family Structure Affect Children, and What Can We Do About It?. Washington, DC: Child Trends, 2002.
  3. McLanahan, Sarah, and Gary Sandefur. Growing up with a single parent: What hurts, what helps. Harvard University Press, 2009.
  4. Parke, Mary. “Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says about the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being.” (2003).
  5. The Witherspoon Institute, Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles..

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