Love is all that matters. We are told that family structure does not matter, as long as love is present. But counselors and therapists know all too well that love is not enough. We live in a time when "love" has been so sentimentalised that it no longer means anything. In a more sober age, love meant willing the highest good for another person. This is not being done by those who demand the benefits of marriage but eschew its concomitant responsibilities. When the emotion and romance subsides, more is needed to make a relationship last. Marriage provides that framework. Indeed, it is the binding commitment of marriage which helps makes love work, not the other way around.
All family structures are of equal value when it comes to raising children. This is one issue that we have a wealth of sociological and behavioural data on. The literature is as voluminous as it is conclusive. Several summary statements will have to suffice here.
William Galston, who served as an advisor in the Clinton administration, put it this way: "A substantial body of research suggests that family structure is an independent factor influencing the well-being of children. Even after correcting for variables such as family income, parental education, and prior family history, children from single-parent families tend on average to fare less well economically, educationally, and emotionally, and encounter more difficulties on the road to becoming self-sustaining adults."
Sara McLanahan (herself a single parent) and Gary Sandefur make a similar observation: "We reject the claim that children raised by only one parent do just as well as children raised by both parents. We have been studying this question for ten years, and in our opinion the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background, regardless of whether the parents are married when the child is born, and regardless of whether the resident parent remarries."
Indeed, the evidence is so weighty that in America and the UK the debate is in many respects over. Even decidedly non-conservatives like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair acknowledge the benefits of marriage and the dangers to society of fatherless families.
Fathers are unnecessary. Singles wanting access to IVF have insisted that their own mother love is sufficient for the child. But the facts suggest otherwise. Again, the evidence is so plenteous, that only a representative remark can be made. Sociologist David Popenoe puts it this way: "The burden of social science evidence supports the idea that gender-differentiated parenting is important for human development and that the contribution of fathers to childbearing is unique and irreplaceable. The behavioral research conducted over the past few decades indicates that children benefit greatly from a high level of father involvement. The more the fathers are involved in the day-to-day activities of their children ... the better off in life those children will be."
Mothers may well love their children and do a great job of mothering, but they make lousy fathers. Mothers and fathers are distinct, yet complementary, elements in the family formula. Neither is replaceable. If a mum or dad dies, a child can make do. But no adult should choose to deliberately raise a child without one of the two most important people in that child’s life. Sure, a child can cope with a single parent, just as a child can cope with one arm. But while such disabilities can be admirably overcome, they are disadvantages we should not wish upon our children.
The nuclear family, if not extinct, is an aberration, a minority grouping. The nuclear family is an American construct of the 50s, claim the critics. Such comments are an indication of rather severe historical myopia. The work of sociologists and cultural anthropologist such as Malinowski, Murdoch, Mead, Zimmermann, Berger, Westermarck and Lowie has demonstrated the historical and universal nature of the family unit - both nuclear and extended. As sociologist Amitai Etzioni once remarked, "There never was a society throughout all of history . . . without a family as the central unit for launching the education of children, for character formation, and as the moral agent of society."
Not only is the family the basic unit of society throughout cultures and throughout history, it is very much alive and well in contemporary Australia. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that family households make up 70 per cent of all households in Australia. Moreover, 74 per cent of all children live with both natural parents. While those hostile to the family may want to see the family reduced to minority status, it has a long way to go.
Same sex parenting is just as good as opposite sex parenting. Appeals are made to some recent American studies which show no difference in outcome to children raised by same-sex parents. However, these studies have been roundly criticised for methodological shortcomings, including small sample groups, lack of proper control groups, and premature results (lack of longitudinal analysis). Moreover, asking a nine-year-old if he or she is happy at home is hardly scientific or objective. What kid will bag his or her own family? Plus many of these kids originally came from heterosexual couples, making analysis even more difficult.
It is interesting that in Scandinavia, which is much more relaxed about gay relationships and other alternative lifestyles, there is a much firmer stand when children enter the equation. Same-sex couples are restricted in regard to access to children via adoption or IVF. Why? Because these countries know what we apparently do not know, that children need a mum and a dad, preferably cemented by marriage. The Scandinavian message is that adults can do what they like with each other but they can not when it comes to children.
In addition there is a growing body of counter evidence. For example, children raised in same-sex families may tend to prove their heterosexuality by increased promiscuity with members of the opposite sex. But given the relative newness of such alternative parenting arrangements, their is need for genuine longitudinal research on the question of same-sex parents. We dare not treat our children as guinea pigs in this social experiment if the findings are not yet clearly in.
Indeed, the whole debate about IVF access for singles and gays tends to ignore the most important question of all: how will the child be affected by such choices? In an age of rights, the rights and claims of children seem strangely silenced. When societies ignore the needs of their own children, preferring instead to indulge the cravings of adults, it is not just the children who will suffer, but societies as well.
As Simon Leys incisively summarises, "The family has stood as the most enduring and successful experiment in the entire cultural history of mankind. . . .In the history of the civilised world, no substitute has ever been found for the family. Any society that allows it to disintegrate, or endeavours actively to destroy it (as we are now doing here) does it at its own horrific risks and costs. . . . That such a matter of common sense could become now a subject for challenge and debate is a telling sign of the times. Chesterton said it well: when common sense ceases to be common, a society is in terminal decay."