Page URL:

Modern families: The kids are alright!

23 March 2015
By Professor Susan Golombok
Susan Golombok is Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge
Appeared in BioNews 795

The spat between Dolce & Gabbana and Elton John – apart from raising the somewhat baffling question of what exactly are 'chemical' babies? – highlights the more pertinent question of what are the consequences of IVF, surrogacy and other forms of assisted reproduction for parents and children.

By pure coincidence, this debacle hit the headlines in the same week as the publication of my new book, 'Modern Families: Parents and children in new family forms' by Cambridge University Press, which brings together the research carried out on parenting and the psychological well-being of children in a wide range of new family forms since these families emerged in the 1970s.

In the book, I make a distinction between new families and non-traditional families. The term 'new families' refers to family types that were either hidden from society and became visible through the growth of the women's and gay rights movements, or did not previously exist and arose from the introduction of in IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies. These include lesbian mother families, gay father families, families headed by single mothers by choice and families created by assisted reproductive technologies involving IVF, egg donation, donor insemination, embryo donation and surrogacy.

The term 'non-traditional families' generally refers to families headed by single parents, cohabiting parents and stepparents. These families result largely from parental separation or divorce and the formation of new cohabiting or marital relationships. New families represent a more fundamental shift away from traditional family structures than do non-traditional families formed by relationship breakdown.

While research on new family forms has its limitations, as does all research on human behaviour, the findings of the studies examined in the book show that the structure of families – the number, gender, sexual orientation and biological relatedness of parents and whether their children were conceived through assisted reproduction – is less important for children's psychological well-being than is the quality of family relationships. Children in new family forms appear to function well whereas non-traditional families are more likely to result in difficulties for children.

Why should this be? One reason is that non-traditional families generally experience greater adversity in terms of financial hardship, marital or relationship difficulties and parental mental health problems than do families formed by same-sex parents or through assisted reproductive technologies. Another is that parents in new family forms often struggle to have children against the odds. Many experience years of fertility treatment before becoming parents, others become parents in the face of strong social disapproval and still others surmount both hurdles in order to have a child. These extremely wanted children tend to be much loved by their parents when they eventually arrive.

This does not mean that all children in new family forms do well. Children flourish in warm, supportive and stable families, whatever their structure, and are likely to experience emotional and behavioural difficulties in hostile, unsupportive and unstable families, whatever their structure.

Children's wellbeing depends not just on their families but also on their communities and the geopolitical context in which they are raised. In recent years, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria signed into law a bill that banned same-sex marriage, gay groups and shows of same-sex public affection; in Uganda, a bill allowing greater punishments for gay people and for those who fail to turn them in to the police – a toned down version of the original bill that included the death penalty for some aspects of same-sex behaviour – was passed by the nation's parliament; President Putin of Russia discouraged lesbian and gay people from attending the Winter Olympic Games; and Pope Francis came out against same-sex civil unions and adoption by same-sex couples. It is stigmatisation outside the family, rather than relationships within it, that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.

As the US Supreme Court is preparing to rule on same-sex marriage - and the signs are that that the ruling will be in favour of marriage equality nationwide – the Christian right have ratcheted up their anti-gay marriage campaign by using flawed research, commissioned and funded by their own organisations, to make the case that lesbian and gay families are bad for children. There has been similar opposition to the use of assisted reproductive technologies to create families, particularly when donated gametes, embryos or surrogacy are involved. Criticism of these families is not new. Nor are politically motivated attempts to discredit the academics whose research has shown the children to be no different from children in traditional families. What is new is the deliberate strategy of conducting sham research that shows children in new family forms to be at risk of psychological harm and dressing this up as science.

The view that children in modern families would experience psychological problems used to be based on prejudice and assumption in the absence of research on the actual consequences for children of growing up in new family forms. Empirical evidence played an important role in countering false beliefs. Today the challenge is not simply to conduct research but also to be vigilant about the quality of this research and the motivations and provenance of those who carry it out.

15 August 2016 - by Ryan Ross 
Three same-sex female couples are suing the US state of New Jersey for what they claim are discriminatory rules regarding the funding of fertility treatment...
5 October 2015 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Single women in the UK who have never had sex are using IVF to have 'virgin births', reports the Mail on Sunday....
17 August 2015 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The number of single women using fertility clinics in the UK has tripled in the last decade and has risen by 20 percent in just one year, reports the Mail Online...
1 June 2015 - by Rebecca Carr 
Feminist writer Germaine Greer has criticised Elton John for allowing his husband, David Furnish, to be named as the 'mother' of their sons on their birth certificates...
26 May 2015 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Susan Golombok's 'Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms' challenges the assumption that the traditional nuclear family is the best environment in which to raise children...
8 July 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Families are complicated and no two are the same. It is often said that assisted reproductive technologies (ART) challenge traditional family models. But what has received less attention to date is how these 'new families' navigate a complex thicket of social, legal and policy norms...
24 June 2013 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
Children born with the help of sperm or egg donation or via surrogacy are well-adjusted at the age of ten, a study says...
23 April 2012 - by Dr Zeynep Gurtin 
Until recently, there has been very little empirical data to inform debate about egg-sharing. However, new research changes this state of affairs...
23 January 2012 - by Kate Brian 
I was delighted that Rachel Pepa's review of my book 'Precious Babies' concluded that it had much to recommend it as a guide to having children after fertility problems as that's exactly what the book is intended to be. I wasn't surprised that she didn't feel it addressed her issues as a donor-conceived adult because the book is not about donor conception or adults...
16 January 2012 - by Rachel Pepa 
As an informal guide to having children after fertility problems, Precious Babies has much to recommend it. There is, however, an omission which, as a donor conceived (DC) person, I found particularly troublesome - the book is entirely devoid of DC voices...
The Kids Should Speak for Themselves ( - 23/03/2015)
It's ironic that Professor Susan Golombok mentions that "children flourish in warm, supportive and stable families" when her research subjects include children who have no idea what they are doing in her study.

A portion of the parents in her study have chosen to lie to their children about their origins.  This is unethical and dangerous.

How can we expect these children to advocate for themselves when everyone is lying to them?  Who will speak for them?  I will, for one.  I and other donor-conceived adults are speaking.  We are telling researchers like Professor Golombok that it was not okay to find out, late in life, that you had been lied to about your body and your family history.

A family that is lying to a child about parentage is, by definition, not stable.  The truth is always out there, only one internet search or blood test away from being exposed.  Like adultery, like the closet, this lie is toxic to families. This is not something that Professor Golombok needs to study.  It is known.

In the same issue of BioNews that Professor Golombok's piece appeared, a man won 40,000 in damages from a woman who lied about genetics.  If genetics shouldn't matter to anyone, how it is that we recognize this harm?  How is it that when parents bring home the "wrong" child from the hospital, they can sue for damages?  But when parents lie to their children out of shame and fear, we report that everything is "just fine" in these families?

Are donor-conceived people fundamentally different from any other human?  Is there a reason we would be *less* concerned with genetic heritage than any other person reading BioNews?  Is there something about technology or "new frontiers" that blinds researchers like Professor Golombok to basic truths about family, trust, deception, lying, shame, or trauma?  

Maybe Professor Golombok should ask these children some real questions, the questions reported by donor-conceived children who were denied the truth:  "Have you ever wondered if you were adopted but no one would tell you?" "Have you ever wondered if your mother had an affair?" "Have you ever felt like there was a secret that no one would talk about?"

These stories are out there -- not hard to find for those who care to look.  When I did intake for a donor-conceived group, I read them weekly.  These are stories about trauma.  As it turns out, it is not okay to lie to a child about who his parents are for 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years.

Infertility treatment exists because genes matter.  People sue each other because genes matter.  People take their own children home from the hospital because genes matter.  Love matters too.  But genetics mattered to our parents and they matter to us.  Stop lying about it.

All parents withhold information from their children, but some lies are so toxic that nothing good can come from them.  A marriage counselor cannot help one spouse keep secrets from the other.  The counselor tells the person to stop lying, if they wish to save their marriage.  A researcher, witnessing this kind of terrible danger to the family unit, cannot stand by and *study* it.  She needs to advocate for the vulnerable party, in this case, for the child, and tell the parents they are doing something wrong.  

I have a message for Susan Golombok -- a message from the future.  When these kids grow up, they won't be alright.  This is an unethical study and it should be stopped.  All of the child subjects should be debriefed and the families given appropriate psychological support as soon as possible.  She should apologize to the parents for misleading them and to the children for lying to them.  Then I hope she'll stick around to see what happens next -- because that's when this story about how everything is just fine is going to become truly interesting.

Susan Kane
Donor-Conceived adult
Boston, MA
The Professor is not alright ( - 25/03/2015)
I am donor-conceived and was told since a very young age. I grew up in a comfortable environment, with a mom that loved me. Yet still today I am outraged enough by donor-conception that I started an online story-collective to publish HUNDREDS of stories from hundreds of donor-conceived people about how our experiences have in fact not been as rosy as Ms. Golombak suggests.

The #1 predictor of child-abuse is when a child lives with a non-genetic guardian. Like for example, every donor-conceived person.

Ms.Golombak won't recognize us. She isn't even asking the right questions.

Please visit and read our stories before you submit to agree with Ms.Golombak's conclusions.
Support, honesty and Stability ( - 29/03/2015)
If you study any of the adults who grew up in these families who are hurting they all were either not supported by one parent, their parents weren't honest with them and/or the homes they grew up in were not stable.  Sure love is important but those three items are what children need growing up.

Opponents of non biological families who believe genetics are the only thing that make up families only recognize stories of adults who are hurting and ignore those who aren't.  As a society we need to listen to all sides.  We need to learn from the negative stories and why those people are hurting.  We need to learn from the positive stories and why their stories were positive.  Most importantly we need to be open minded.

Non biological families aren't going anywhere and that's a good thing because there are so many that bring joy to so many.
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.