A common argument against the raising of children by lesbians is that children need the presence of a father and a mother in the home. Children raised otherwise are at risk of bad outcomes. There is new evidence about this in a research letter from Nanette Gartrell and her colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine on results from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS).
Before we get to this, let’s look at previous research on the children of lesbian mothers. To my knowledge, the first, pathbreaking review was by Charlotte Patterson in 1992.
This paper reviews research evidence regarding the personal and social development of children with gay and lesbian parents… Research on these topics is relatively new,… [but to date] there is no evidence that the development of children with lesbian or gay parents is compromised in any significant respect relative to that among children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances.
However, this was early in the history of the research. Fiona Tasker wrote another review in 2005:
Findings from research suggest that children with lesbian or gay parents are comparable with children with heterosexual parents on key psychosocial developmental outcomes. In many ways, children of lesbian or gay parents have similar experiences of family life compared with children in heterosexual families.
Norman Anderssen and colleagues reviewed the literature in 2008:
Twenty [empirical studies] reported on offspring of lesbian mothers… Seven types of outcomes were found to be typical: emotional functioning, sexual preference, stigmatization, gender role behavior, behavioral adjustment, gender identity, and cognitive functioning. Children raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers did not systematically differ from other children on any of the outcomes… children raised by lesbian women do not experience adverse outcomes compared with other children.
Bridget Fitzgerald came to similar conclusions in another 2008 review:
The body of literature generally concludes that children with lesbian and gay parents are developing psychologically, intellectually, behaviorally, and emotionally in positive directions, and that the sexual orientation of parents is not an effective or important predictor of successful child development.
We see a pattern here.
Now back to the NEJM letter. The NLLFS has been following a cohort of children raised by lesbian parents since 1986. These children are now adults, enabling the researchers to look for any long-term adverse effects of lesbian parenting. The adult children of the NLLFS families were assessed using the Achenbach, a gold-standard instrument for mental health that has been normed on large samples of Americans. They matched the adult children in the NLLFS sample with randomly sampled adults in the Achenbach normative sample who had the same age, sex, race or ethnic background, and educational level. They found that
A comparison of the NLLFS offspring sample and the matched Achenbach normative sample showed no significant between-group differences with respect to adaptive functioning (family, friends, spouse or partner relationships, and educational or job performance), behavioral or emotional problems, scores on mental health diagnostic scales, or the percentage of participants with a score in the borderline or clinical range.
In summary, 40 years of research indicates that being raised by lesbians is no different than being raised by a man and a woman.
Why is this important? The core argument against lesbian parenting has been that parenting by a father and mother is part of the natural order, a view supported by thousands of years of tradition in many cultures. Doing things according to the natural order is good for us, whereas doing things any other way is unnatural and disordered and will lead to harm. In my view, a preference for tradition is a reasonable heuristic, but that’s all it is. You should also look for evidence of harm. People have looked for harmful outcomes of lesbian parenting in many ways for a long time. So far as we can tell, there are none.