WASHINGTON — Amid the legal arguments at Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing on same-sex marriage, there loomed a social science question: How well do children turn out when they are raised by gay parents?
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is widely considered the swing vote, called the topic "uncharted waters." Conservative Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wryly asked, "You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cellphones or the Internet?"
Indeed, gay marriage is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. It has only been legal since 2004, when Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Eight more states and Washington have legalized same-sex nuptials since then, but it is has been banned in 35 states.
Researchers have been delving into the effects of same-sex parenting only since the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the studies involve relatively small samples because of the rarity of such families.
Still, there is a growing consensus among experts that the sexual orientation of parents is not a major determinant in how well children fare in school, on cognitive tests and in terms of their emotional development. What matters more, researchers found, is the quality of parenting and the family's economic well-being.
"I can tell you we're never going to get the perfect science, but what you have right now is good-enough science," said Benjamin Siegel, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. "The data we have right now are good enough to know what's good for kids."
Siegel co-authored a report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics last week when it came out in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The group looked at dozens of studies conducted over 30 years and concluded that legalizing same-sex marriage would strengthen families and benefit children.