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News Article

Marriage has always been about raising children
Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Not all married people have children.  Not all children are conceived within marriage.  But the fundamental reason the man-woman union has been recognised throughout history, by almost all cultures, is children – and their need to be raised in a stable, caring environment.

That environment has been shown, time and again, to be with their biological mother and father, publicly committed to each other and the children they have created together.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  But a very large 2010 US survey of child abuse and neglect (“NIS-4”) studied abuse and neglect reports from six different family types and found that families headed by two biological married parents were safest by far on every measure.

Six different family types

The six different family structures studied in NIS-4 (Chapter 5.3) were those where the child was living with:

  • two married biological parents
  • two married parents (eg one biological parent married to a stepparent, or two married adoptive parents)
  • two unmarried parents (eg two cohabiting biological parents, or two cohabiting adoptive/ legally recognised parents)
  • one biological/legal parent cohabiting with a partner unrelated to the child
  • one biological/legal parent
  • no parents

The research is summarised in the graph above.

Biology matters – so does marriage

It is noteworthy that the most dangerous family type is where one biological parent is living with a partner unrelated to the child – far more risky than a single parent family. 

Two cohabiting biological parents are safer for children than a single biological parent.  They are about as safe as one biological parent and a stepparent or two married adoptive parents, but are nevertheless much more risky for children than two married biological parents.  Where the welfare of children is concerned, biology matters.  So does marriage.

Same-sex couple families not excluded

The NIS-4 study did not specifically identify children raised by same-sex couples, nor did it specifically exclude them.  Same-sex couples cannot naturally procreate together, so families with children raised by same-sex couples would generally fall into the following categories:

  • two married parents (one biological parent married to a stepparent, or two married adoptive parents)
  • one biological/legal parent living with a partner unrelated to the child

The percentage of same-sex couples in this survey would have been small, but that fact does not negate the finding that the risk of abuse and neglect is likely to be lowest when children are raised by their two married biological parents.

The US NIS-4 methodology – based on a large randomised sample, with independent evaluation – is far superior to that of most same-sex couple parenting studies, which tend to have small, non-randomised samples recruited from volunteers, self-evaluation, and invalid or missing controls.

And while NIS-4 did not specifically identify same-sex couple families, a recent analysis of data from a large randomised sample has thrown further light on the safety of this family type.

Further relevant research

Research by Dr Paul Sullins, published in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Education, Society and Behavioural Science, analysed data from a representative sample of 207,007 children – 512 with same-sex parents – from a US National Health Interview Survey in the years 1997-2013.

The survey, answered by the parents, covered many questions related to their children’s health and wellbeing.  The results reveal that, on eight out of 12 measures, children raised by same-sex couples had nearly double the risk of emotional, mental health or developmental problems compared with children raised by their two biological parents.

For example, 17% of children in same-sex couple families had serious emotional problems, compared with 7% of those with opposite sex parents.

Bullying and “homophobia” have often been cited as the cause of such problems.  But Dr Sullins found no difference between the two groups in self-reported experience of having been bullied.   The reasons for the greater incidence of emotional ill-health in same-sex couple families must lie elsewhere.

‘Say Yes’ outrage

The NIS-4 and Sullins findings have outraged a new group calling itself “Say Yes” (to the upcoming same-sex marriage plebiscite). 

A post on the Say Yes website on 8/3/16 referred to a letter published in The Australian on 2/3/16 by FamilyVoice national research officer Roslyn Phillips, citing the NIS-4 finding that kids are safest with their married biological mum and dad.  Say Yes was apparently concerned that such a finding might insult families headed by same-sex and other LGBTIQ couples.  It might even encourage voters to Say No!

Say Yes consulted NIS-4 co-author Dr Andrea Sedlak.  She confirmed that Roslyn Phillips had correctly reported the NIS-4 finding “that children in homes with two married birth parents experienced lower rates of maltreatment (abuse or neglect) than children in other family structures.”

Dr Sedlak then noted that NIS-4 did not deal with the sexual orientation or gender identity of the parents it studied.  She stated her belief that “commitment to the relationship and to the child is key for a family arrangement to maximize child well-being” – in other words, that biology is not so important.

She went on to criticise Mrs Phillips’ use of the term “natural” parents.  Dr Sedlak said this could imply that other types of parents were “unnatural”.  But she had apparently failed to consult a dictionary. 

Both the UK Oxford Dictionary and the US Merriam-Webster Dictionary agree that the word “natural”, when applied to parents or children, means “related by blood” (not adopted).  Dr Sedlak’s objection to this perfectly valid term to describe biological or birth parents betrays her ideological bias.

Dr Sedlak’s comments delighted Say Yes, but they ignore both evidence and common sense.  There has long been a community recognition that “blood is thicker than water”, and an observation that children tend to be happier in intact birth-parent families than blended stepfamilies. 

There is overwhelming evidence from valid science that children generally do best with their biological married mum and dad.  Changing the meaning of marriage, in a way that would deny the need of children, all things being equal, to be raised by their two natural opposite-sex parents, could have unforeseen consequences for future generations.

Australian voters would do well to Say No to such a change. 


  • Family and parenthood
  • Government and society
  • Marriage and sexuality

View next article - 'Safe Schools' victory - but who will rewrite the flawed program?


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