In the category of op-ed pieces The Man chose not to publish, here’s what I wrote about Mark Regnerus’s Social Science Research article “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Blog readers get a special edition with links sprinkled in.
By Philip N. Cohen
What do you get when you combine bad science with ideological motives? A disingenuous attempt to stigmatize families that distracts from the serious problems many of them face.
Conservative activists last week leaped to embrace a paper purporting to show that the adult children of gay and lesbian parents fare poorly compared to those raised by stably married heterosexual couples. Although many social scientists – myself included – believe the study is seriously flawed, it immediately became a weapon in the political arsenal against marriage and parental rights for gays and lesbians.
The researcher, sociologist Mark Regnerus, analyzed survey responses from young adults who described their family structure growing up. He compared those who lived their whole childhoods with two married, biological parents, to those who reported that one of their parents had ever had a same-sex romantic relationship. The finding: those in the latter category were more likely to report having a variety of economic and emotional problems.
There are two design problems that render the study unfit for drawing meaningful conclusions. First, the parents who ever had a same-sex relationship are a widely diverse group that share not only sexual orientation, but, more importantly, a history of family instability. Although they include a tiny number of couples who raised their children as long-term, committed partners, the vast majority were single or divorced parents. Any difference that might be the result of parents’ sexual orientation is confounded with the differences between those in long-term stable marriages versus disrupted families.
Second, the study did not take into account many background factors known to have dramatic effects on child wellbeing. For example, it is a sad fact that those from wealthy backgrounds are (on average) more likely to get and stay married (to each other), and more likely to have children who grow up to be rich and successful. Totally apart from sexual orientation, any study of how family background affects adult outcomes needs to take such material factors into account. The Regnerus study falls far short of the depth and quality necessary to draw even basic conclusions.
The research was derailed by its obsessive focus on sexual orientation – over more tangible factors that do affect children’s wellbeing. That is why the researcher lumped all gay and lesbian parents together, rather than differentiating families based on parenting practices, family stability or access to resources. That emphasis is not surprising, however, because Regnerus has a published track record as a social conservative advocate for “traditional” marriage, what he calls “the gold standard of a married mom and dad.” And the study was the product of funding by the arch conservative Witherspoon Institute and Bradley Foundation.
In the article itself, Regnerus wisely included some disclaiming language, cautioning against a causal interpretation of the role of parents’ sexual orientation. He wrote, “I have not and will not speculate here on causality, in part because the data are not optimally designed to do so.” Without that caveat, the paper never would have passed muster for a peer-reviewed publication.
However, Regnerus has since sacrificed that scientific pretense for his political convictions. “The most significant story in this study,” he declared, “is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father.” As he knows, however, his stably married-couple families had many opportunities and advantages over the other parents that the study could not account for.
For children to grow up happy and successful, loved and secure, parenting does matter – a parent or parents who love, care for, and develop a positive relationship with their children. Also vitally important are access to financial resources, community support, good schooling, housing, healthcare and basic security. When families have these assets, they are very likely to have positive outcomes regardless of the gender of their parents.
This is what researchers and child welfare organizations mean when they say the sexual orientation of parents should not be a determining factor in children’s adoption, placement or support. In fact, the major American medical academies and associations – pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers – all support the adoption and parenting rights of gay and lesbian couples.
Too many children in this country have serious problems that need attention – in their families, schools, housing, healthcare and nutrition – for us to devote our energies to self-serving ideological crusades that do more to stigmatize families than help them to succeed. It would be especially harmful – and shameful – if such a study were used to justify denying foster and adopted children the right to live in the loving families of gay and lesbian parents who are prepared to care for them.
I previously posted on the rushed timeline of the article, with some more links.