Studies, Studies, We’ve All Got Studies

There’s some news today about a newly published study of children of lesbian couples.   (The full study is here.)  The researchers have been studying these families since 1986 in an effort to track the development of the kids over time.   I have not read the actually study yet (I will get to that soon) but the bottom line is that the kids are fine.   Indeed, they may even be doing slightly better than average–perhaps because all of these children were conceived and born only after some deliberation.  

There’s one particular line from the abstract I want to highlight for the moment:  

“Within the lesbian family sample, no Child Behavior Checklist differences were found among adolescent offspring who were conceived by known, as-yet-unknown, and permanently unknown donors or between offspring whose mothers were still together and offspring whose mothers had separated.”

The assertion I want to focus on is that the researchers didn’t find differences between adolescents conceived by known, as-yet-unknown, and permanently unknown donors.   I find this somewhat surprising and quite interesting, though I haven’t figured out what I think about it just yet.   I’m not sure I’ll discuss it further right now, as I mean to keep this a reasonable length. 

Over the past months, there’s been a lot of conversation on the blog about the use of sperm provided by a man who is not to be a parent.    Much of this conversation has been based on anecdotal information.   Several individuals who are themselves donor-conceived have forcefully articulated their sense that they have been diminished and/or harmed by the use of third-party gametes.   

It’s always hard for me to figure out how to compare statistical evidence (here from a peer-reviewed study) to individual anecdotal evidence.   It seems to me unreasonable to dismiss individual experience because it doesn’t match up with a study.    But at the same time, individual experience is just that–individual.   How much weight should we give to individual experience in formulating general rules or policies?     

Thinking further, it actually isn’t clear to me that the individual experiences discussed here are necessarily inconsistent with the study.   I do not know (though perhaps I could go back and figure this out) whether the individuals who have written here are similar to the subjects of the study.  If they are not (say if they are children of heterosexual couples who used donor sperm) then their experiences may be different ways that makes it distinguishable from the children of lesbians who were the subjects of the study.   In other words, one could credit both without being self-contradictory.  

There’s another recent study that I’ve been meaning to write about as well–one you can find on the website of Family Scholars.   (If you look at their front page, you will find they also have a brief entry about the Pediatrics study.)  This study is called “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor.”     It’s focussed on young adults conceived with third-party sperm. 

It’s a long study and I haven’t had time to consider it carefully.  But I think the title of the press release accompanying the report does give a sense of the authors’ general conclusions:   Pathbreaking Study Finds Adults conceived Through Sperm Donation Suffer Substantial Harm.” 

Does this mean the two studies are inconsistent?   I’m not sure it necessarily does.   I think the Family Scholars study included 39 lesbian families among a larger number of heterosexual families and single mother families.   The lesbian families are a relatively small portion of their total sample and as to some of the critical questions, they don’t break the results out by subcategory.   (In some areas where they do break out the statistics by subgroup there are some significant differences between lesbian families and other family forms they are studying.)   Thus, I’m not sure that they offer specific conclusions as to lesbian families that are at odds with the Pediatrics study.    

Further, I think (but I’m not sure) that the Family Scholar’s study is examining an older population.  There are questions about “before you were 25” which suggests at least a lot of those surveyed were over 25, while those studied in the Pediatrics study were 17. 

All I mean to suggest here is that it’s tricky to compare studies and I don’t want to leap to the conclusion that the findings are mutually exclusive–which would mean that one has to be wrong or invalid.  That said, it seems to me that the general sense of the authors of the studies is quite different and cannot be easily harmonized.  

So what follows from this?   It is hard for me to believe that those who are convinced that using third-party sperm is a bad idea will be persuaded by the Pediatrics study just as it is fairly unlikely I’m going to be convinced by the Family Scholars study.   Maybe the best we can hope for is a robust discussion of the relative merits of the two studies so that those who have not made up their minds have as much information as possible?

5 responses to “Studies, Studies, We’ve All Got Studies

  1. If these studies were born out to be accurate, should that affect law and how? should lesbians be treated differently than singles and gays?

    • That’s a fair question. I suppose that the easiest thing for me to say would be that people would be judged on their merits and not on their categories. Thus, a categorical exclusion of lesbians (or lesbian couples) from adoption seems unwarranted. I guess I’ve assumed your asking about the longitudinal study? But you could ask it about both studies, and perhaps you meant to.

  2. Julie,
    Thank you. I greatly appreciate and respect your rational approach to thoughtful considerations on these issues.

    -Karen Clark

  3. The authors suggested that the difference was one of A. more thoughtful and involved parenting and B. gender- that females tend to be better parents (A might also be construed as an outcome of B…)

    I’m not saying whether this is true or not, just conveying.

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