I have a lot of respect for Pamela Paul. So it pains me to say that her new piece in The Atlantic, “Are Fathers Necessary?”, gets it wrong, and in two very big ways. The gist of her argument is that sociologists Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey are right in claiming that fathers play no essential role in the lives of their children. Or, in their words, ”based strictly on the published science, one could argue that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man…”
Paul’s first mistake was to take Biblarz and Stacey’s article as an impartial, scientific treatment of the “published science” on gender and parenthood. Alas, it is not. In fact, a close reading of their article’s appendix indicates that the vast majority of the published studies they relied upon are deeply flawed from a methodological perspective. Specifically, most of the studies relied upon small, unrepresentative samples of same-sex and heterosexual couples. You just cannot draw strong conclusions one way or another from these studies, given their methodological limits.
Second, Paul overlooked the fact that Biblarz and Stacey acknowledge in their article that same-sex couples appear to be more likely to break up than heterosexual, married parents. To quote from Biblarz and Stacey: “the comparatively high standards lesbians bring to their intimate unions correlate with higher dissolution rates.” In fact, a number of other studies also find that lesbians have significantly higher dissolution rates, compared to heterosexual, married couples. And given the fact that some of the nation’s most eminent family scholars, such as Andrew Cherlin, stress the importance of stability in children’s lives, this fact should give Paul pause.
Finally, Biblarz and Stacey ignore a growing body of research relying on large, random, representative samples of American children that indicates fathers do indeed play a distinctive role in the lives of their children. See, for instance, this study on the impact of fathers on girls’ risk of teenage pregnancy. I will be summarizing this research in a report that will be released later this year. I hope it will help set the record straight, and that Paul will reconsider her position on fathers.