As marriage rates plummet and the percentage of intact families sharply declines, experiments that challenge the fundamental nature of the family are adding to the chaos that threatens civil society. A new report released this month by the Institute for American Values and the Commission on Parenthood’s Future explores the impact on children of such experimental arrangements throughout the world. The findings are cause for concern.
The spectrum of associations referred to as “families” ranges from single parenthood by choice to networks of multiple adults called “parents.” Often masking the profoundly negative consequences for children of these experimental living arrangements, those who advocate such alternative household structures describe them in Orwellian terms. Associations of multiple lovers in a web of various bonds are dubbed “polyamorous” relationships. Two adults who make an agreement to conceive a child but are otherwise not committed in a relationship are referred to as “bothies”—implying that each has claim to the title of parent. The umbrella euphemisms that span this spectrum of arrangements are “intentional parenthood” and the “wanted” (i.e. planned) child. It’s assumed that the notion of being “wanted” has some intrinsic value that will benefit the child, regardless of family structure. As the “One Parent or Five” report suggests, despite the artful labeling of alternative family structures, obvious questions still exist about whether these arrangements are beneficial to children. Good intentions can pave the way to some undesirable places.
Although there is little longitudinal or wide-range data on how the children conceived within this bizarre spectrum of households fare, there are troubling indications that the answer will be “not well.” Given that conception of a child in these non-traditional “families” typically involves artificial insemination, findings of a 2010 study by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future should raise concern about experiments in family formation.
In a survey of nearly 500 young adults who were conceived by a donor dad and more than 500 peers who were conceived in the traditional way, those conceived through artificial insemination were twice as likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol and to have been “in trouble with the law” and nearly 1.5 times more likely to report depression and other mental health problems.
Children aren’t the only ones experiencing the negative consequences of family fragmentation embodied in these new versions of “family.” Not surprisingly, a union of a husband and wife who have made a lifelong commitment to each other in marriage is more likely to endure than that of unmarried partner parents. The survey found that donor offspring were nearly twice as likely to have experienced divorce or multiple family transitions in their families of origin.
“Intentional parenthood” often means intentionally denying the child the presence of one (or both) biological parents. Evidence abounds that family structure is associated with the well-being of children. Those raised by two married, biological parents tend to fare better than peers in other households. In terms of economic well-being, children who grow up in homes where both parents are present are 82 percent less likely to live in poverty. Intact families tend to fare better in a wide range of economic measures; on average they have a higher net worth, higher income, more household assets, and greater savings.
Youths growing up with both a mother and father in the home are also less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as becoming sexually active or engaging in substance abuse and less likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. In addition, teens in intact families tend to fare better on a range of emotional and psychological outcomes and to have higher levels of academic achievement and educational attainment.
With an apparent disregard for the social and economic consequences to children, the rise of experimental family forms and the “commissioning” of babies may be the ultimate expression of the commodification of children—when offspring are conceived for the gratification of adults who have yet to grow up.