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Three objections to the concept of family optimality

By Carlos A. Ball

Those who defend same-sex marriage bans in the United States continue to insist that households led by married mothers and fathers who are biologically related to their children constitute the optimal family structure for children. This notion of family optimality remains the cornerstone of the defense of the differential treatment of LGBT families and same-sex couples under the law.

There are three main objections to the family optimality claim. The first is a logical objection that emphasizes the lack of a rational relationship between means and ends. Even if we assume that the optimality claim is empirically correct, there is no connection between promoting so-called family optimality and denying lesbians and gay men, for example, the opportunity to marry or to adopt. It is illogical to think that heterosexual couples are more likely to marry, or to accept the responsibilities of parenthood, simply because the law disadvantages LGBT families and same-sex couples.

The second objection is one of policy that questions whether marital and family policies should be based on optimality considerations. The social science evidence shows, for example, a clear correlation between parents who have higher incomes and more education, and children who do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems. And yet it is clear that neither marriage nor adoption should be limited to high-income individuals or to those with college degrees. This is because such restrictions would exclude countless individuals who are clearly capable of providing safe and nurturing homes for children despite the fact that they lack the “optimal” amount of income or education.

Image Credit: Gay Pride Parade NYC 2013 - Happy Family. Photo by: Bob Jagendorf. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
Image Credit: Gay Pride Parade NYC 2013 – Happy Family. Photo by Bob Jagendorf. CC-BY-2.0 via bobjagendorf Flickr.

It is also important to keep in mind that judges and child welfare officials do not currently rely on optimality considerations when making custody, adoption, and foster care placement decisions. Instead, they apply the “best interests of the child” standard, which is the exact opposite of the optimality standard because it is based not on generalizations, but on individualized assessments of parental capabilities.

Finally, the optimality claim lacks empirical support. Optimality proponents rely primarily on studies showing that the children of married parents do better on some measures than children of single parents (even when controlling for family income) to argue that (1) marriage, (2) biology, and (3) gender matter when it comes to parenting.

The “married parents v. single parents” studies, however, do not establish that it is the marital status of the parents, as opposed to the number of parents, which account for the differences. Those studies also do not show that biology matters because the vast majority of the parents who participated in the studies — both the married parents and the single ones — were biologically related to their children.

As for the notion that parental gender matters for child outcomes, it is the case that most single-parent households in the United States are headed by women. This does not mean, however, that the absence of a male parent in most single-parent households, as opposed to the absence of a second parent, accounts for the better child outcomes found by some studies that compare children raised in married households to children raised in single-parent ones.

In short, the family optimality claim does not withstand logical, policy, or empirical scrutiny. Family optimality arguments, whether in the context of same-sex marriage bans or any other, should be rejected by courts and policymakers alike.

Carlos A. Ball is Distinguished Professor and Judge Frederick Lacey Scholar at the Rutgers University School of Law. His most recent book on LGBT rights is Same-Sex Marriage and Children: A Tale of History, Social Science, and Law.

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