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Prop 8 on Trial
prop 8 on trial
January 24, 2010

By Amanda Beck

In anticipation of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger defense slated to begin on Monday, Prop 8 on Trial thought we might review the testimony of Michael Lamb, who has offered the plaintiffs’ most direct challenge to the defense case thus far.

Lamb is a British psychologist who has studied developmental psychology for nearly 40 years and won recognition from the Association for Psychological Sciences for his lifetime contribution to the field.  In testimony last week, he attempted to undercut the central defense contention that marriage between homosexual partners would threaten the well-being of children.

Indeed, if most of Perry’s witnesses have offered the raw material upon which plaintiff attorneys hope to build legal arguments, Lamb might qualify as the lone plaintiff expert called to launch a preemptive strike against the defense.

“I’m going to offer two broad opinions,” he told the court on January 16.

First, children raised by parents of the same sex are just as likely to be well-adjusted as children raised by parents of opposite sex, Lamb testified.  Second, many children of same-sex couples would be even more well-adjusted if their parents could marry and thereby induct the family into a well-recognized social institution, he said.

Lamb defined a well-adjusted child as one who is able to interact well with adults and children, to do well in school, and to form healthy intimate relationships when he reaches adulthood.

GOOD PARENTING

In many ways, he seemed an ideal vehicle to deliver this plaintiff-friendly evidence, because Lamb once believed, as the defense has said, that a child performs best when she is raised by both a mother and a father living in her home.  That was the predominant view among researchers in the 1970s, when Lamb and other scientists began studying the lives of children raised by single mothers, he said.

However, research conducted since then has “made clear that that initial prediction was incorrect,” Lamb conceded last week.  Since the early 1990’s, a broad consensus of researchers has agreed that the welfare of a child does not depend upon having both male and female parents in the home, Lamb said.  Instead, childhood development is affected by three main factors:

  1. The quality of the relationships that a child has with his parents
  2. The relationship between the parents themselves, and
  3. Circumstances, such as the economic climate, in which the child is raised.

In general, children do best when they share warm relationships with their caregivers and when their parents, regardless of gender, also have a harmonious relationship with each other, Lamb said.

He added that a good parent is one who reads the signals of her child, provides appropriate stimulation, and set limits.  But “what makes for an effective parent is the same, whether you’re talking about a mother or a father,” Lamb said.

CONTRADICTING “YES” SUPPORTERS

Lamb’s testimony directly contradicted arguments presented in “21 Reasons Why Gender Matters,” a 2007 report drafted by an Australian charity and distributed to Proposition 8 supporters by Ron Prentice, chairman of Protectmarriage.com.

In addition to the campaign’s use of the report, its text echoes some of the defense’s opening argument, such as the claim that “social ills” will increase if more children are raised without both of their biological parents.  Thus, in court, asking Lamb about the report allowed the plaintiffs to take their arguments directly to the enemy, so to speak, and to rebut defense statements in advance of their formal case.

Plaintiffs seized on at least three of the report’s assertions.

First, they highlighted its quoting Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe, who believes in the necessity of “gender-differentiated” parenting.  Popenoe states that “we should disavow the notion that mummies could make good daddies, just as we should disavow the notion of radical feminists that daddies can make good mummies. The two sexes are different to the core and each is necessary.”  This theory is also supported by upcoming defense witness David Blankenhorn.

But in his court testimony, Lamb challenged this position by stating that no social or scientific research shows that a child will be harmed if his parents do not observe typical gender roles or share a genetic relationship with him.  In fact, studies on children who were adopted or conceived through assisted reproductive technology show that these children are just as likely to be well-adjusted as those raised by their biological parents, Lamb said.

Second, Lamb took issue with the report’s stating that “homosexual abuse of children is proportionally higher than heterosexual abuse with children.”  This is a canard that persists despite the fact that “no evidence” shows that gay and lesbian people are more likely to sexually abuse children than their straight counterparts, Lamb said.  Research dating from the 1970s through the 1990s has demonstrated this point, Lamb said. As one reference, he cited a study published in 1994 in the well-respected medical journal Pediatrics.

Interestingly, this point elicited further questioning from Chief Judge Vaughn Walker.  “We have all read about the reports of widespread priestly abuse in the Roman Catholic Church,” Walker said. “How do you square your statement with that phenomenon?”  Lamb replied that both heterosexual and homosexual people do sometimes sexually abuse children, but that homosexuals are no more likely to do so because of their sexual orientation.

Finally, Lamb argued with report statements that he said mischaracterize a study published in Developmental Psychology.  “21 Reasons Why Gender Matters” says the study found that 12 percent of children raised by lesbian parents later became lesbians themselves.  If this were true, it could represent a 600% increase in the rate of homosexuality that scientists observe in the wider population.

However, Lamb said that he knew the authors of this study, had read their findings, and did not believe their conclusions supported the report’s statement.  Instead, Lamb said that children raised by same-sex parents are not significantly more likely to become homosexual.  Rather, they are more likely to exhibit fewer sex-stereotyped attitudes: For example, they might be less likely to believe that girls should aspire to be nurses while boys become doctors, but this has no bearing on the children’s sexual orientations, Lamb said.

WHY CHILDREN MATTER SO MUCH

Considering the centrality of child welfare to the defense case, how Walker views this evidence could bear significantly on the outcome of Perry:  If the defense can convince Walker that allowing same-sex marriage threatens the well-being of California children, then the defense will have carved a legal justification for circumscribing same-sex marriage rights based on a compelling state interest.

On the other hand, if the plaintiff expert testimony and its pedigree holds sway, then Walker might conclude that child welfare is not at issue or, further, that allowing same-sex couples to marry would actually benefit some children.

There is also a third possibility: That the trial transcript will read more like an ongoing expert battle, leaving Walker and later appellate judges unconvinced of scientific consensus on any front.  And in that case, the content of the judges’ rulings - like their regard for the science itself - might be anyone’s guess.

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