Adoption and same-sex couples – some evidence

In the light of recent discussion on the Child and Family Relationships Bill, and some issues raised by the referendum on marriage equality, I have looked at recent evidence on the outcomes for children adopted by same-sex parents. The short version is that there is no evidence for worse outcomes in children adopted by same-sex couples. My judgement is that there is enough evidence to support equality in adoption for same-sex, and heterosexual couples. I believe that the onus is on those who argue against allowing adoption by same-sex couples, to to produce the evidence to support their case. In a future post I will look at the wider evidence on children raised by same-sex couples.

First, what are my qualifications to do this? I’m not a lawyer, nor a social worker, nor a specialist researcher on this topic. What I am is an epidemiologist, with my original training in paediatrics, and a track record in child health research. I have a lot of experience in study design, and data analysis, and the critical reading of scientific literature. My cv is elsewhere on this website. I am not a lawyer, and will not be commenting on any legal issues in the bill.

The most accessible recent review on the overall topic of children raised by same-sex families, a report for the Williams Institute at UCLA, by Abbie Goldberg and colleagues, can be found here.


There is a detailed explanation of the origins of the bill, with links to the relevant documents on the Children’s Rights Alliance website. I recommend particularly Geoffrey Shannon’s review, which is accessible from that page, or directly here. The CRA summary of the bill is concise, and I fully agree with it –

The Children and Family Relationships Bill represents the most important reform of child and family law for a generation. The proposed legislation seeks to put children at the heart of family law, provide legal clarity around various family types and address discrimination faced by children in non-marital families. It is hoped that it will significantly reduce the number of cases going to court due to the current legal vacuum.

There are a number of areas of the bill that are potentially controversial, although the most complex piece, on surrogacy has been passed back to the Department of Health for further review. As far as I can see from listening to discussions in the media over the last few days, and in particular to the contributions from Mothers and Fathers Matter, one issue is allowing adoption by same sex couples.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I strongly agree that children have a right to identity, and specifically, to know the full details of their biological and social origins. I also feel, very strongly, that children whose parents split up, have a right to maintain contact with both parents. As a result, I strongly support the donor register in the bill, and I oppose anonymous sperm donation, ovum donation, and surrogacy. I respect the views of the people in ‘Mothers and Fathers Matter’, and I am friendly with one of the people involved, my ex-colleague from UCD, Ray Kinsella. I respectfully disagree with them on the issues of marriage equality, and the use of assisted reproduction technologies, and adoption, by same-sex couples.


The summary of the evidence can be quite bald. There is no particular evidence that the outcomes of children adopted by same sex couples differ materially from those of children adopted by heterosexual couples.

There does not seem to be a huge amount of recent research on this topic. There is a paper by paper, and study by study summary elsewhere on this site, listing all the papers I have found, so if I’m missing something, please accept my apologies and let me know.

US First child adoption study

This is a series of papers on a set of couples adopting a first child from Abbie Goldberg, JuliAnna Smith and colleagues. These studies recruited a group of parents adopting their first child through adoption agencies, and gay and lesbian NGO’s across the US. To be included in the study, couples had to be adopting their first child, the child had to be under the age of 18 months, and both partners had to be first-time parents. Adoption agencies in the United States were asked to provide study information to clients who had not yet adopted. Both heterosexual and same-sex couples were targeted through adoption agencies to facilitate similarity on geographical location and income.

Couples were interviewed on two occasions, just after completion of their assessment of suitability for adoption (the home study), and three to four months after the placement began. They were asked to complete questionnaires after each of the interviews, and again 12 months after the placement. There were between 120 and 140 couples in the different reports from this study, a little over a third of whom were heterosexual couples, about a third, female same-sex couples, and a little under a third male same-sex couples.

There were no material differences in outcomes for the children, and the experiences of the parents were also very similar between the three groups of families, and were as expected from the existing literature on adoption.

The Los Angeles study

There are two reports from a study of children adopted by 82 families in Los Angeles (60 heterosexual, 15 gay, and 7 lesbian) from Justin Lavner, Jill Waterman and Letitia Peplau, who took part in the UCLA TIES for Adoption service. This was, and is, an add-on service, to routine pre-adoption support, for people adopting ‘high risk’ children from foster care. The parents in this study were recruited between 1996 and 2001. Families were assessed at 2 months, 12 months and 24 months after the placement.

Children showed improvements in behaviour and intellectual ability after adoption. There was no difference between the three groups of families in these outcomes, although the children adopted by the same-sex couples had slightly higher levels of biological and environmental risks prior to adoptive placement.

The high risk adoption study

This was a study of parents, fostering children, with a view to adopting them, through US Child Welfare Systems. 84 people took part, from 42 couples, (17 lesbian, 13 gay, 12 heterosexual), who were interviewed 3–4 months after they were placed with a child whom they intended to adopt. This was a qualitative study.

It is well known that the challenge of fostering a child, with a view to adoption, is considerably greater than that of the more common adoptions. Again, there were few differences between the three sets of couples. All identified issues with the legal system, with social services, and with the child’s relationship with their birth family. For the same-sex couple and added stress was the variable legal recognition for them both as adoptive parents. In some US states only one member of a same-sex couple can legally adopt a child. A second stress was anxiety about the views of the birth parents about a placement with a same-sex couple. Neither of these was raised as an issue by the heterosexual couples.


There is not a huge amount of evidence on the question we are addressing here, outcomes for children adopted by same-sex couples. However, the evidence is very consistent, and is also consistent with the wider body of evidence on adoption. There is no evidence for worse outcomes in children adopted by same-sex couples. It is of course, almost an academic joke, that every paper ends with a call for further research, and some further studies on the outcomes for all children raised by same-sex couples have started recently. As far as I know, there are no new studies specifically looking at the outcomes of children adopted by same-sex couples underway. If you know of some, please let me know and I will edit accordingly.

Is there enough evidence for the Child and Family Relationships Bill to become an Act? Given what these papers show, it is hard to argue that further research is a high priority. There are many pressing social problems, few researchers, and limited budgets. However, for making policy, there is a moral and ethical imperative to make use of the existing evidence, whether it is abundant or scant. My own judgement, and it is a judgement, though I hope an informed judgement, is that there is enough evidence to support equality in adoption for same-sex, and heterosexual couples. I believe that the onus is on those who argue against allowing adoption by same-sex couples, to produce the evidence to support their case.

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