‘Zero Abuse’ Finding in Lesbian Parent Study is Misleading

There’s been a small blip on the radar screen of parenting issues that’s worth discussing, mostly for the way it’s been handled by the news media.  Here’s one example (Huffington Post, 11/10/10). The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law announced a study of lesbian parenting headed by one of its scholars (Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11/2010).  It’s a longitudinal study whose main point is whether lesbian parents produce more lesbian or gay offspring than do heterosexual parents.
But in this most recent round of interviews the 17-year-old children of the lesbian parents studied were asked if they’d ever been abused and the answer was “no.”  None of the adolescents reported physical or sexual abuse. That’s great news of course; no one wants kids to be abused. But what should we make of this study?  Truth to tell, not much on the abuse front.  The reasons are many, but no one should pretend that the findings are in any way applicable to the community of lesbian parents generally. The articles I’ve read about the study seem to care about nothing but the breathless headline material “Child Abuse Rate at Zero Percent in Lesbian Households, Study Finds.”  That strongly suggests that lesbian parents generally don’t commit child abuse, and even a casual glance at the actual study shows that’s probably not true. It’s pretty clear that the author of the article did no more than read the press release put out by the Williams Institute, “a research center on sexual orientation law and public policy.”  In fact, the article is the press release almost word for word.  And its claim that there’s an “absence of child abuse in lesbian mother families…” is gravely misleading. Why?  The reasons are legion. The study itself is coy about how it was actually conducted.  Indeed, readers have to locate another study to find out the details.  That second study here shows that subjects were recruited at lesbian events, women’s bookstores, etc. in Boston, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco (Pediatrics, 11/2010).  They were women who had been donor inseminated and were expecting a child.  The cohort was recruited between 1986 and 1992. A total of 77 families representing 78 children completed the study to date. Given that, several questions arise.  How were the women recruited?  Were they paid?  What criteria were used for selection?  Why did it take six years to recruit 77 families?  No hint of an answer to any of these questions is revealed in either of the studies. Apart from the fact that the cohort is extremely small, what else can be said about it?  There is some information about that. First, because the women were donor inseminated, the pregnancies were, by definition, planned and the children conceived were wanted by their parents.  That’s a huge difference between the children studied and the population generally. For example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has found that about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned.  And of course unplanned pregnancy is highly associated with family breakdown and poorer outcomes for children.  So the fact that all the children of the lesbian moms were planned and wanted makes them, from the outset, different from and more privileged than the population at large. The demographics of their parents do too.  For example, 87.1% of the parents are white and 81.8% were either middle, upper-middle or upper class.  In short, those families bear little relationship to the population at large. And of course the ways in which they differ go a long way toward accounting for the finding of no abuse.  Abuse of children occurs overwhelmingly among less wealthy and less educated parents, and among African-American and hispanic ones.  Those are the ones the study left out. And the study contains no definition of the word “abuse.”  The adolescent children were simply asked “Have you ever been abused?” and left to define the term for themselves.  Given that, whatever response they made would have been questionable at best. Is spanking ‘abuse?’  What about confinement to one’s room?  What about verbal berating?  ‘Abuse’ is one of those vastly flexible concepts.  Making no effort whatsoever to define it is intellectually irresponsible and renders the study’s findings subject to almost any interpretation. Amid all the excitement about the zero abuse finding, one thing seems to have been overlooked.  The children in these families had to deal with far more family instability than kids in the population generally.  Specifically, 56% of the couples had split up by the child’s 17th birthday.  That’s compared to 36% of parents generally. So the headline could have read “Study Shows Children of Lesbian Couples Endure 55% Increase in Family Breakdown,” but it didn’t.  Indeed, that salient fact wasn’t mentioned in the press release at all and the Huffington Post author was too incurious to find it for his/herself. Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for gay men and lesbian women becoming parents.  My lesbian and gay friends who are parents (via adoption in all cases) do a wonderful job as far as I can tell.  (Of course they’re middle and upper middle class, well educated, etc.)  I think they should have the opportunity to give their love, caring, nurturing and wisdom to children as much as anyone else. So it’s not lesbian women or gay men I’m criticizing here.  It’s biased research and biased articles that seek to make us believe that which very likely isn’t true – that lesbian women make better mothers than do their straight counterparts.  They may, but this study doesn’t show it and we shouldn’t pretend that it does.

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