As the nation awaits rulings in two same-sex marriage cases pending before the Supreme Court, gay couples are already well into another battle--one that may be less high-profile in nature, but just as important to families—the right to legally adopt children.
On Monday former vice presidential nominee and conservative darling Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin knocked the issue into the spotlight when he reversed his stance on gay adoption, signaling just how far public opinion has come in embracing LGBT rights. As a newly minted lawmaker in 1999, Ryan voted to ban same-sex couples in the District of Columbia from adopting children, a decision he says he now regrets.
“Adoption, I’d vote differently these days,” said Ryan during a town hall event in Janesville, Wis., Monday. “I do believe that if there are children who are orphans who do not have a loving person or couple, I think if a person wants to love and raise a child they ought to be able to do that. Period. I would vote that way."
Ryan added that he still opposes gay marriage, dampening the reactions of LGBT advocates. “He still has yet to support marriage equality, which we want to see him do,” said Paul Guequierre, deputy press secretary of Human Rights Campaign, in an interview with msnbc.com Wednesday. “Marriage strengthens families.”
Ryan’s evolution on gay adoption, however, is significant. “It signals where we’ve come in America,” added Guequierre.
Polls have shown that gay parent adoption has some of the fastest-growing support among Americans in recent decades. In a pair of December USA TODAY/Gallup polls, for example, 61% of those surveyed said that gay people should have the right to adopt children, more than double the support seen 18 years ago.
Despite the growing number of allies, however, gay couples hoping to adopt still face considerable opposition. During oral arguments in the Supreme Court case challenging Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia voiced a commonly held conviction among opponents to both gay marriage, and gay parent adoption--that allowing gay people to adopt may in some way harm children.
“If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must—you must permit adoption by same-sex couples,” said Scalia in March. “There’s considerable disagreement among—among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a—in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some states do not—do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.”
It’s true--some states do not permit adoption by same-sex couples. Adoption laws for LGBT parents are all over the map, varying on a state-by-state basis. But beyond that, there is scant evidence suggesting the rest of Scalia’s argument is true.
Researchers have looked into the effects of same-sex parenting for last 30 years, and found little to no connection between a parent’s sexual orientation and a child’s well-being. What matters more, research suggests, is the quality of parenting and the family’s economic stability.
“Children need secure and enduring relationships with committed and nurturing adults to enhance their life experiences for optimal social-emotional and cognitive development,” concluded a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “If 2 parents are not available to the child, adoption or foster parenting remain acceptable options to provide a loving home for a child and should be available without regard to the sexual orientation of the parent(s).”
The American Sociological Association basically said the same thing in the amicus curiae brief it filed in Hollingsworth v. Perry--the very case Scalia was commenting on.
“The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research,” reads the ASA statement. “The clear and consistent consensus in the social science profession is that across a wide range of indicators, children fare just as well when they are raised by same-sex parents when compared to children raised by opposite-sex parents.”
Despite these assessments, however, it’s taken a long time for many lawmakers to come around. Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia allow LGBT parents to jointly adopt, and ten of those states have adoption laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But in over 25 states, adoption laws for same-sex couples are unclear, especially when it comes to second-parent adoption--a practice that allows parents in same-sex relationships to adopt their partner’s child.
Seven states have legal restrictions preventing gay couples from petitioning for second-parent adoption, and availability is uncertain in another 30 states. These restrictions split families apart, forcing same-sex couples to choose who will adopt all or some of the children they raise together. As a result, gay parents often have no legal rights to their own kids, which prevents them from making medical decisions, leaving property, or even seeing their children in certain circumstances.
“There’s a patchwork of state laws,” said Guequierre. “Depending on what state you’re in, only one parent can adopt, which makes the other parent a legal stranger to the child...If something happens to the parent who is the legal guardian, what happens to the child then?”
According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, more than 100,000 children are waiting to be adopted. For this reason, many conservatives like Ryan have an easier time supporting gay rights when it comes to providing homes for the astronomical number of children currently living without one.
Years before supporting same-sex marriage, President Obama used the exact same logic when he came out in favor of gay adoption. “I believe there are too many children who need loving parents to deny one group of people adoption rights,” he wrote in response to the Human Rights Campaign 2008 Presidential Questionnaire. “A child will benefit from a healthy, loving home, whether the parents are gay or not.”
So it may follow that Paul Ryan is slowly heading in the same direction. Though he doesn’t support marriage equality now, “support for gay adoption has tended to be a stepping stone toward stronger support for gay rights in other forms,” said Talking Points Memo Sahil Kapur on msnbc Wednesday. “I think this Paul Ryan signaling to supporters of gay rights and Republican donors, many of whom are supportive of gay rights as well, that he’s not going to let this issue hobble his presidential ambitions.”