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Fate of same-sex marriage cases likely to influence public health

March 26, 2013|By Karen Kaplan | Los Angeles Times
  • Demonstrators supporting same-sex marriage rally outside the Supreme Court building.
Demonstrators supporting same-sex marriage rally outside the Supreme… (Nicholas Kamm / AFP )

Advocates for and against same-sex marriage will make legal arguments to the Supreme Court this week about whether laws such as the federal  Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 run afoul of the Constitution. 

Meanwhile, in medical literature, doctors, psychologists, sociologists and other researchers have been making the case that allowing gays and lesbians to marry results in tangible health benefits for the couples involved, their children and even taxpayers as a whole.

Plenty of studies have established that marriage is good for the physical and mental well-being of heterosexual couples. So far, the evidence indicates that the same is true for the nation’s estimated 646,000 same-sex couples. 

FULL COVERAGE: The battle over gay marriage

Consider: 

* Same-sex couples that lived together but were not able to marry were more likely to rate their health as “poor” or “fair” (as opposed to “excellent,” “very good” or “good”) than married heterosexual couples, according to a study published online last month by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. They were also less likely to have health insurance. The study was based on data from 12 years’ worth of surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

“Legalizing same-sex marriage could provide other important socioeconomic and psychological benefits often associated with different-sex marriage -- such as partner health insurance benefits, joint tax returns, and increased relationship support -- that may directly and indirectly influence the health of individuals in same-sex unions,” the researchers concluded. 

* Economists from Emory University in Atlanta used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine whether same-sex marriage laws were linked to the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (a proxy for measuring risky sexual behavior among gays and lesbians). They found that rates of syphilis (but not gonorrhea) were higher in the 39 states that prohibit same-sex marriage than in the 15 states (including the District of Columbia) that permit same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships. (Two states have no laws regarding gay marriage.) The results were published last year in the journal Social Science & Medicine. 

* After same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts, gay and bisexual men went to the doctor less often -- a sign that their physical well-being had improved, according to a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health. The average number of visits to a medical clinic fell from 2.61 to 2.26 per year, with a corresponding $26.23 drop in annual medical expenses. The law had an even greater effect on mental health, with the average number of clinic visits each year falling from 3.35 to 2.93 per patient. That worked out to annual savings of $47.49 per patient. 

* A study from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health found that gay, lesbian and bisexual Californians who were married experienced significantly less “psychological distress” than their counterparts who weren’t. (However, they still weren’t as well off as married heterosexual couples.)

“Being in a legally recognized same-sex relationship, marriage in particular, appeared to diminish mental health differentials between heterosexuals and lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons,” the researchers concluded. The results were based on data from 1,166 people who took part in the 2009 California Health Interview Survey, and they were published last month in the American Journal of Public Health. 

* The American Sociological Assn. says “children fare just as well” when they’re raised by same-sex couples as when they’re raised by opposite-sex couples. The sociologists make their case in a 42-page “friend-of-the-court” brief that was filed last month. 

* And just last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed same-sex marriage for the sake of the children raised by gay and lesbian couples. "Children's well-being is affected much more by their relationships with their parents, their parents' sense of competence and security, and the presence of social and economic support for the family than by the gender or the sexual orientation of their parents," the academy declared in a new policy statement. The statement also noted that children “receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders.”  

For more on the gay-marriage cases, check out this roundup from the Los Angeles Times. 

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan

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