Exposing the Schlock Social Science on Gay Parenting

National Review Online | Published on June 11, 2012

By Edward Whelan

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(The posts below were published on June 11 and 12.)

Exposing the Schlock Social Science on Gay Parenting—Part 1

The mainstream academic journal Social Science Research has just published two articles that expose and challenge the schlock social science on gay parenting that has been uncritically embraced and propagated by so many people eager to advance the cause of gay marriage.

In “Same-sex parenting and children’s outcomes: A closer examination of the American Psychological Association’s brief on lesbian and gay parenting,” LSU professor Loren Marks addresses a puzzle: On the one hand, studies based on “large, representative samples” have shown that “[c]hildren who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents.” On the other hand, “social science research with small convenience samples has repeatedly reported no significant differences between children from gay/lesbian households and heterosexual households.” (Pp. 735-736 (emphasis added).)

Marks’s essential answer to the puzzle is that the studies “with small convenience samples” are unreliable. Among other things:

1. “[S]ocial researchers examining same-sex parenting have repeatedly selected small, non-representative, homogeneous samples of privileged lesbian mothers to represent all same-sex parents.” (P. 739 (emphasis added).)

2. “[I]n selecting heterosexual comparison groups for their studies, many same-sex parenting researchers have not used marriage-based intact families as heterosexual representatives, but have instead used single mothers.” (P. 741 (emphasis added).) Despite the broad claims made on behalf of the research, “with rare exceptions, the research does not include studies comparing children raised by two-parent, same-sex couples with children raised by marriage-based, heterosexual couples. (P. 742.)

3. The American Psychological Association’s claim that “not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged” fails to take account of the largest study that actually examined “children’s developmental outcomes.” (Pp. 742-743.)

4. The same-sex parenting studies have failed to address a range of outcomes for children that are usually the focus of national studies on children, including drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, sexual activity, and criminality. (Pp. 743-744.)

Relatedly, and before I turn in the next post to the second new Social Science Research article, I’d like to highlight this recent paper, “Sexual Orientation and Reason: On the Implications of False Beliefs about Homosexuality,” by psychologist Stanton L. Jones. Among the many noteworthy conclusions that Jones draws from his review of existing studies are that the “Achilles’ heel of research into the homosexual condition” is “the difficulty of achieving sample representativeness in the area” and that “findings of influential earlier studies are severely distorted by volunteer bias resulting from the way unrepresentative samples have been gathered.” (P. 3.)

Exposing the Schlock Social Science on Gay Parenting—Part 2

The second article that the academic journal Social Science Research has just published is University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus’s “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.”

Unlike the small convenience-sample studies that have generated the unreliable research that has wrongly been taken seriously (see my Part 1 post), the New Family Structures Study is a data-collection project based on a large random sample of young adults, and it studies a broad range of developmental outcomes. Regnerus’s paper “compare[s] how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types.” (P. 752.)

Regnerus’s findings contradict the “conventional wisdom … that there are very few differences of note in the child outcomes of gay and lesbian parents” as compared to heterosexual parents. (P. 753.) In his words, “the empirical claim that no notable differences exist must go.” (P. 766.)

In 24 of the 40 outcome measurements, there are statistically significant differences (even after controlling for various factors) between, on the one hand, children who were raised in an intact biological family and whose parents remain married and, on the other, children whose mother had a same-sex romantic relationship. (P. 764; see Tables 2, 3, and 4 on pp. 761-762.) In terms of outcomes positively associated with child development, these differences uniformly cut in favor of the children raised in an intact biological family:

For example, the now-adult child of a mother who has had a same-sex romantic relationship is statistically more likely to be less educated; to be currently cohabiting, on public assistance, unemployed or not fully employed; to have had an affair while married or cohabiting; to have been touched sexually as a child by a parent or other adult; to have been forced to have sex; to suffer from depression; to have been arrested and to have pled guilty to a non-minor offense; and to use marijuana frequently. That child is statistically less likely to identify as entirely heterosexual and to enjoy good health.

The adult children of men who have had same-sex relationships fare worse on 19 of the 40 outcomes (and better on none) than children in intact biological families. (P. 764; see Tables 2, 3, and 4 on pp. 761-762.)

As Regnerus sums it up, his study “clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults—on multiple counts and across a variety of domains—when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”

I hasten to add that I don’t regard Regnerus’s study as authoritatively and definitively settling much of anything. (Nor, I think, does Regnerus.) But, as I will explain in my Part 3 post, I do believe that it has significant implications for the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage, in part in further discrediting the junk social science that so many proponents of same-sex marriage propagate (and that courts have relied on), and in part in drawing attention to the massive potential negative consequences of redefining marriage in a manner that severs it from its core purposes of responsible procreation and child-rearing.

Exposing the Schlock Social Science on Gay Parenting—Part 3

Let me briefly outline how I believe the new Social Science Research articles by Loren Marks and Mark Regnerus bear on the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage:

1. Proponents of same-sex marriage routinely claim that there is no evidence that children raised by lesbian or gay couples are disadvantaged in any significant respect compared to children of heterosexual couples. Indeed, in his anti-Prop 8 ruling, federal district judge Vaughn Walker went even further, as he contended (or, rather, purported to find as a matter of fact):

“Children raised by gay or lesbian parents are as likely as children raised by heterosexual parents to be healthy, successful and well-adjusted. The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.”

According to Walker, “the evidence shows beyond any doubt that parents’ genders are irrelevant to children’s developmental outcomes.” On that basis, he determined that California did not have a legitimate “interest in preferring opposite-sex parents over same-sex parents.”

As Marks discusses, the research that Walker relies on rests on small convenience samples, faulty comparison groups, and limited outcomes and is therefore ridiculously unreliable. Whether or not that research is entitled to any weight, only a fool or an ideologue could believe that the matter is “beyond serious debate” or “beyond any doubt.” At the very least, Regnerus’s study provides ample reason to doubt the current “conventional wisdom.”

I emphasize that I do not maintain that the statistical correlations that Regnerus found must be taken as settled. Nor do I contend that Regnerus’s study directly compares the child-raising outcomes of same-sex couples with those of heterosexual couples (married or otherwise). Given the relative novelty and rarity of same-sex parenting, decades of additional research would surely be needed before relatively firm conclusions could be drawn.

For purposes of the ongoing effort to have judges invent a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, what matters most is that the factual claims made on behalf of same-sex marriage, whether on parenting outcomes or on various other matters, involve highly contestable assertions that are the very stuff of policy debate. That’s one compelling reason why this matter ought to be left to the processes of representative government for decision.

2. Regnerus’s study adds to the wealth of research demonstrating that children fare best when raised by their biological, married father and mother. It is an ongoing social tragedy that more and more children are being raised outside that optimal framework. As the Brookings Institution’s Isabel Sawhill discusses in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the proportion of children born outside marriage soared to 41 percent in 2009, and more than half of babies born to women under the age of 30 are born out of wedlock. In order to help reverse this damaging trend, Sawhill observes, it’s time for “the media, parents and other influential leaders [to] celebrate marriage as the best environment for raising children.”

Of course, second-best or lesser options for raising children might be the only available ones in some circumstances, and it might well be that the children who would otherwise be raised by unmarried same-sex couples would fare better if those couples could and would marry. But the policy question on same-sex marriage also must consider the much larger matter of what the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples would do to marriage’s central mission of helping to ensure that children will be born and raised in stable and enduring families by the fathers and mothers responsible for their existence.

Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples threatens to permanently reorient the institution of marriage away from this central mission, to the profound detriment of the millions and millions of children who will not be raised in the framework that is optimal for their development. But you don’t need to take my word for it: It’s the proponents of same-sex marriage who routinely dismiss as irrational the inherent link between marriage and responsible procreation and child-rearing.

Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is a regular contributor to NRO’s Bench Memos blog.

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