June 7, 2010 -- Children raised by lesbian parents develop into psychologically healthy teens and have fewer behavior problems than their peers, according to the latest report on a long-running study that began in 1986.
''Contrary to assertions from people opposed to same-sex parenting, we found that the 17-year-olds scored higher in psychological adjustment in areas of competency and lower in problem behaviors than the normative age-matched sample of kids raised in traditional families with a mom and a dad," says researcher Nanette Gartrell, MD, the Williams distinguished scholar at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.
Gartrell's report, published in Pediatrics, is the latest in a series from the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), which enrolled 154 prospective lesbian mothers between 1986 and 1992. Researchers followed them and their children as they conceived through donor insemination. Most (140) were either birth mothers or co-mothers, but 14 were single moms from the start.
The retention rate of the study is high, with 93% of the original participants, or 78 families, still enrolled, Gartrell says.
More than 270,000 U.S. children were living in households headed by same-sex couples in 2005, according to Gartrell, and nearly twice that number had a single gay or lesbian parent.
For the latest report, Gartrell and her colleague, Henny Bos, PhD, of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, looked at 78 teens from 77 families; one family did not complete all the survey data.
The teens, average age 17, completed questionnaires. The moms were interviewed and completed lengthy checklists about their children's activities, social life, school and academic performance, and overall competence.
The researchers compared the results of the participants with those from a comparison group of 93 teens, also average age of 17, from another research sample that included maternal reports on the same topics.
The teens raised by lesbian parents were rated higher in social, school, academic, and total competence, Gartrell found, while they were rated lower than the peers in the comparison group in engaging in problem behaviors such as rule-breaking and aggression.
No differences were found among the teens raised by lesbian parents who were conceived by a known donor, as yet unknown donor, or permanently unknown donor, Gartrell found, or among those whose mothers were still together and those who had split up.
When interviewed for this report in May 2009, 56% of the mothers who were co-parents when the child was born were now split up. But most of those, 71.4%, shared custody.
How to explain the good results? "These are not accidental children," Gartrell tells WebMD.
The babies, she notes, were all planned, all conceived through donor insemination. "The moms tended to be older and attended parenting classes. They were very involved in the process of education [for their children]."
''They anticipated their kids would experience stigmatization," she says, and many discussed how to handle it, both with family members and at discussions at their child's school. She describes the parents as ''very committed."
Were the mothers realistic in rating their kids? Gartrell thinks so. ''We saw a tremendous amount of candor,'' she says. The checklists include more than 100 items.
Gartrell can't say with certainly whether the findings would apply to gay fathers. It's ''highly likely," she says. But gay couples who have a child through a surrogate is much more recent phenomenon than lesbian couples opting for donor insemination, so the research will take time to catch up, she says.
The follow-up on the families she studies will continue, Gartrell says. Bos, her co-author, plans to replicate the study in the Netherlands. The study was funded by a variety of organizations, including the Lesbian Health Fund of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and others, but the funders had no roles in the study, Gartrell says.
''What's really impressive is the long-term follow-up," says Ellen Perrin, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, Boston. She reviewed the paper before publication for the authors but was not involved in it otherwise.
While much research has been published on younger children in lesbian families, there's ''almost no understanding of what happens as they become adults," says Perrin.
The good news from the latest report, she tells WebMD, is that these children are doing very well socially, psychologically, and academically. Adding credibility, Perrin says, is the high retention rate -- 93% of the original participants are still being followed. "Very few people have been able to do that," she says. "That makes the data very valuable."
Will the results change the minds of those opposed to same-sex parenting? "I hope it does," Perrin says. "People need to look at the information."
WebMD requested comments on the new research from two organizations that favor traditional family structures -- Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Spokespeople for both groups said they will try to review the findings and provide comment, but those comments were not received in time for publishing.