Bench Memos

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.

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