Gay Parenting and Double Standards

First published in Between the Lines, January 25, 2007

I don’t have children, don’t plan to have children, and don’t particularly want children. If I were to adopt children, my main criterion would be that they be old enough to operate the vacuum and do some light dusting. So same-sex parenting is not an issue with which I have a deep personal connection.

Except that the religious right is making it personal. Their most popular argument against same-sex marriage goes something like this: to endorse same-sex marriage is to endorse same-sex parenting. Same-sex parenting is bad for children, since it deprives them of either a mother or a father. Therefore, we ought not to endorse same-sex marriage.

It is not surprising that arguments against same-sex marriage quickly morph into arguments against same-sex parenting. For one thing, the tactic is rhetorically effective: indeed, it has more than a faint whiff of “scare tactic.” Less cynically, there is a significant connection between marriage and parenting, which is not to say that children are the only reason for marriage or that other reasons (such as mutual support) are insufficient by themselves. In any case, the argument cannot be ignored.

Does an endorsement of same-sex marriage necessarily entail an endorsement of same-sex parenting? It seems not. One does not have to be married to have children, and one does not have to want children to be married. Indeed, we allow people to get married even when everyone agrees that it would be undesirable for them to have children (e.g. convicted felons serving life sentences). So the connection is not automatic.

Still, public policy is often based on averages, not necessary connections. On average, heterosexual couples produce their own biological children; homosexual couples never do. If they want children, they must adopt, use reproductive technology, or otherwise go outside the relationship. This fact is at the crux of the argument.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that gays who want children do these things already, even without the benefits of marriage. (So do many straights.) Unless opponents can show that same-sex marriage would increase the prevalence of non-biological parenting, their argument falls short.

But do gay couples “deliberately deprive children of either a mother or a father”? Consider first the case of adoption. It seems to me not merely odd, but foolish and insulting, to describe adoptive gay parents as “depriving” their children of anything, rather than as providing them with something. Of course, specific adoptive parents, like specific biological parents, may deprive their children of all sorts of things (affection, education, material needs, and so on). But when anyone–gay or straight–takes a child who does not have a home and provides it with a stable, loving one, we should not invoke the language of “depriving.” To do so is akin to describing soup-kitchen workers who provide stew to the homeless as depriving them of sandwiches.

Oddly enough, many same-sex marriage opponents recognize this. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family, whom I publicly debate on a regular basis, describes the sacrifice of gays who provide a loving home to orphaned children as “noble” and “honorable;” he has said the same of single parents who adopt. After all, however bad you think being raised by two mommies or two daddies is for children, being raised by the state is surely worse.

So perhaps the deprivation argument applies primarily to those who use reproductive technology. One might contend (for example) that mothers who go to a sperm bank, with no intention of including the biological father in the child’s life, deprive that child of a relationship with its father. That, indeed, is Stanton’s position, and he holds it whether the sperm-bank patron is homosexual or heterosexual.

Whatever you think of the merits of this argument, it has absolutely nothing to do with same-sex marriage. The vast majority of those who use reproductive technology are heterosexual. Why, then, bother gays about this? As William Saletan wrote in Slate, “You want to stop non-biological parenthood? Go chain yourself to a sperm bank.”

Presumably, the same considerations would apply to those who create a child by having sex with a third party outside the relationship. Objecting to their actions hardly provides a blanket argument against same-sex parenting, much less same-sex marriage.

To argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it deprives children of a parent is like arguing against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it leads to divorce: yes, it sometimes does, but so does heterosexual marriage, and far more often in terms of raw numbers.

So even if we grant the controversial assumption that deliberately raising children apart from their biological parents “deprives” them of something, the deprivation argument proves both too little and too much. It doesn’t apply to most same-sex couples (few of us have children, and fewer still by insemination), and it applies to many heterosexual ones. In short, it’s a red herring.