‘It’s Time for Mark Regnerus to Get Collectively Dumped,” read the headline to a New Republic blog post in response to a study released earlier this summer by Regnerus, a professor in the department of sociology and at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His crime? Doing research on the effects of same-sex parenting on children. The shamelessness of the blogospheric eruption turned into an outrage when an activist in New York wrote to the university to accuse Regnerus of “using misinformation in an attempt to hurt others,” prompting an ethics inquiry.
Any fair-minded reader of Regnerus’s work would probably have the impression not that he wants to hurt people but that he’s concerned about the state of the family and our lives. As a social scientist, he looks at the evidence. His New Family Structures Study, while supported and welcomed by advocates of traditional marriage, wasn’t exactly made to order. While the findings suggest that young-adult children of parents who have been involved in same-sex relationships may have a heightened susceptibility to emotional and social problems, Regnerus himself emphasized that the “political take-home message of the NFSS study is unclear.”
“On the one hand, the instability detected in the NFSS could translate into a call for extending the relative security afforded by marriage to gay and lesbian couples. On the other hand, it may suggest that the household instability that the NFSS reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble of spending significant political and economic capital to esteem and support this new (but tiny) family form while Americans continue to flee the stable, two-parent biological married model, the far more common and accomplished workhorse of the American household, and still — according to the data, at least — the safest place for a kid.” Sounds more like a scientist than an activist.
But therein lies the reason for the intolerance: The evidence, incomplete and imperfect as it is, points to the stability — the good — of a male-female, married model. And that’s a threat to a counter-narrative that is advancing as the product of a false sense of inevitability and assertions about both happiness itself and social-science evidence that reality simply doesn’t bear out.
The marriage-overhaul movement asserts that there is a scientific consensus that doesn’t quite exist. “One argument propelling the judicial activism to redefine marriage is that it makes no difference whether a child is raised by same-sex parents instead of a traditional, married mother and father,” says Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. She points to California District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, who asserted from the bench: “The research supporting this conclusion is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.” Marshall also cites a 2005 report by the American Psychological Association insisting that “not a single study” found any significant disadvantage for children raised by same-sex parents. “On the basis of that premature assertion,” Marshall points out, “it would be easy to conclude — as some courts have — that the majority of Americans who continue to affirm that marriage is the union of one man and one woman have no reasonable basis for that conclusion.”
Obviously, there is not yet a strong body of research on same-sex parenting, given that it’s a social experiment still at the embryonic stage. But some would like to prevent investigation and reflection from slowing the march of ideology into the lives of children.
“What do we need with a retrograde researcher?” the New Republic blogger asked. This hits on a key question: In a culture that claims so often to value tolerance above all other values, do we tolerate non–sexual revolution values when it comes to issues of marriage and family?
The commentary and the investigation are not isolated incidents, of course. They form part of a trend toward the marginalization of religion that we have seen most notably in the debate over that pernicious Department of Health and Human Services mandate, wherein religious institutions and individuals have been told that practicing their faith is illegal if it involves not offering health-insurance plans that include coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.
At a time when a trilogy about sadomasochism is all the rage (Fifty Shades of Grey), surely there’s a little room somewhere in our culture for love, marriage, and babies? And, more importantly, room for asking whether there might be sociological advantages to this approach?
“Yes, Regnerus is socially conservative,” wrote Slate’sWill Saletan — who is not. “But he’s reflective, open-minded, and reality-based. The two exhibits cited in the indictment of him are a Slate piece against promiscuity and a Christianity Today piece promoting early marriage. But if you read the articles, you’ll find that his case for early marriage focuses on the implausibility of prolonged abstinence. His case against promiscuity is grounded in a critique of the power imbalance between men and women. He’s a more complicated guy than his critics let on.”
In a new book on the impact of the contraceptive pill, Adam and Eve after the Pill, Mary Eberstadt exposes this kind of conversation-killing as being akin to the behavior of Westerners who denied the soul-crushing nature of Communism during the Cold War. She posits: “When people look back on this or any other momentous debate decades or centuries from now, one of the first things they will want to know is whose corner reason and empiricism and logic were in. That would be the corner of those willing to believe the truth — secured by the research of the scholars whose work testifies to it, whether the rest of the world wants to hear it or not.”
If we take a deep breath, and read between the lines of some of the most heated rhetoric accusing Catholics or Republicans or a social scientist in Texas of waging a “war on women” or favoring some other kind of supposedly hurtful or hateful cause, these are the questions we should be asking: Do we tolerate the raising, in the public square, of questions about the effects of our sexual choices, and even about the purpose of sex? Do we care enough about the welfare of children to have a robust scientific, cultural, moral, political debate?
“Social-science inquiry has standards, and so should social-science discourse; Regnerus met the former and deserves the latter,” Marshall observes. “We should be having a substantive conversation on the future of children. Instead, once again, the issue seems to be more about adults’ desires than children’s needs.”
In a recent interview, Elton John talked about the son — born of a surrogate mother in California and conceived with a “donor” egg — that he has with his longtime male partner. “It’s going to be heartbreaking for him to grow up and realize he hasn’t got a mummy,” John said.
Wouldn’t it be heartbreaking if we didn’t simply ask: Is this best? Is this good?
That’s not intolerant. That’s not accusatory. That’s simply being honest with ourselves. Thank you, Sir Elton, for opening a door. Now can we let Professor Regnerus — and serious scholars like him — get back to work?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.