Science has spoken: That’s what judges, professional associations, and journalists have said about the effects on children of being raised by same-sex couples. It turns out, though, that science spoke with unwarranted certainty.
In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a statement saying that “the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children’s psychosocial growth.” There was “not a single study” to find the children of gay and lesbian parents “to be disadvantaged in any significant respect.”
The chief justice of the Iowa supreme court, throwing out the state’s law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, relied on the same evidence. He wrote that “sexual orientation and gender have no effect on children raised by same-sex couples, and same-sex couples can raise children as well as opposite-sex couples.” The view that children need a mother and a father is “largely unsupported by reliable scientific studies.”
Federal judge Vaughn Walker produced a similar, but even more confident, “finding of fact” in the course of throwing out a California voter initiative codifying the standard definition of marriage: “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.”
Social Science Research, an academic journal, has now quite effectively demonstrated that the debate is alive and well. Its July 2012 edition includes two papers by sociologists that explode the bien-pensant consensus. The first, by Loren Marks of Louisiana State University, criticizes the body of research purporting to demonstrate that children of same-sex couples do just as well as other children. The second, by Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, provides new evidence that they do not. Along with these papers the journal has published critical comments and the authors’ responses.
Marks zeroes in on the APA’s 2005 statement, finding it to be “not empirically warranted.” The APA cited 59 published studies: an impressive number masking the non-definitiveness of each one. More than three-quarters of the studies, Marks points out, “are based on small, non-representative, convenience samples of fewer than 100 participants.” Twenty-six of the studies used no heterosexual comparison groups. Of the 33 remaining studies, 13 compared same-sex couples with single parents as child-rearers. Few of the studies examined the children’s rates of criminality, drug abuse, or suicide. Almost none of them looked at outcomes for older adolescents or young adults who were raised by same-sex couples. Marks notes, finally, that none of the 59 studies had statistical power: That is, they stood a significant chance of failing to find differences between populations even when they existed.
Marks’s conclusion: “Not one of the 59 studies referenced . . . compares a large, random, representative sample of lesbian or gay parents and their children with a large, random, representative sample of married parents and their children.”
Regnerus’s research, funded by two conservative nonprofits (the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation), avoided many of the flaws of these earlier studies. It examined a large, random sample of young American adults. It used intact biological families as a comparison group. And it checked outcomes such as rates of crime, sexually transmitted infections, and drug abuse.
The chief limitation of the study — the one that its critics have seized on — is that not many same-sex couples have been raising children continuously. Regnerus therefore grouped together people who reported that they had a parent who had been involved in one or more same-sex relationships.
The results were depressing. Young adults who reported that their fathers had had same-sex relationships were more likely than any of the other groups studied to be involved in crime; those who said their mothers had had such relationships were second most likely. Those who had lesbian mothers (defined, again, as mothers who had had same-sex relationships) were almost four times more likely than those raised by still-married biological parents to be on public assistance. They were more likely to receive such assistance even than people who had been raised by single parents. They were, not surprisingly given that result, also the group most likely to be unemployed. They had the lowest educational-attainment level of any of the groups.
Young adults with gay fathers were five times as likely as those raised by their biological parents to report having recently had suicidal thoughts; those with lesbian mothers were more than twice as likely. Rates of sexually transmitted infections were much higher for those with gay or lesbian parents. Those with lesbian mothers reported that as children they were touched sexually by adults at a rate more than 11 times as high as the rate among those raised by their biological parents — and a rate almost twice as high as that of the next-highest group, those raised in stepfamilies. They also reported the highest rate of any group for being forced to have sex against their will. Those with gay fathers ranked second. As usual, children raised by their biological parents had the best statistics.
The emotional outcomes followed the same pattern. Those with lesbian mothers reported having felt the lowest degree of safety as children; those with gay fathers were the next-lowest. Kids raised by gay or lesbian parents grew up to have the highest rates of depression of all of the groups. People who had gay fathers reported the lowest levels of satisfaction with their current romantic relationships. People with lesbian mothers reported a rate of infidelity in their current relationships three times higher than that of people raised by still-married biological parents.
Regnerus notes that his findings do not establish causality. He shows that young adults who had parents in same-sex relationships did worse, on average, than other young adults across a range of variables. He does not show, or attempt to show, that they had these worse outcomes because they had gay parents. He suggests, in his response to his academic commenters, that his main finding seems to be the superiority of the intact biological family compared with all tested alternatives. He suggests further that household instability may play the leading causal role in generating divergent outcomes. It may be, that is, that the chief advantage of biological families over those with parents who had been in same-sex relationships was the greater stability of the former.
These qualifications did not spare Regnerus a ferocious reaction from liberals. Four gay-rights groups issued a joint press release trashing his study as “a flawed, misleading, and scientifically unsound paper that seeks to disparage lesbian and gay parents.” Evan Wolfson, the head of one of those groups, Freedom to Marry, added, “The 2 million kids being raised by 1 million gay parents in this country are doing great, and would do even better if their parents didn’t have to deal with legal discrimination such as the denial of the freedom to marry, and ongoing attacks such as this kind of pseudo-scientific misinformation and the disinformation agenda that’s funding it.”
Liberal journalists had similar reactions. An article by E. J. Graff in The American Prospect denounced the study as “dangerous” (three times). She wrote that the social conservatism of Regnerus and his funders “tells all you need to know about Regnerus’s motivations,” and concluded that “Slate’s editors should be ashamed” of having let Regnerus summarize the study in an article for it. Molly Redden asked in The New Republic: “Will this embarrassing piece of statistical acrobatics mark the beginning of the end of Mark Regnerus’s credibility with respectable news outlets?” Her answer: “Here’s hoping that more news outlets will decide that his isn’t a voice we need at all.”
These hyperbolic reactions are in marked contrast to those of the academic specialists who commented on the Regnerus study. Paul Amato, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, made it clear where his sympathies lie, writing, “It would be unfortunate if the findings from the Regnerus study were used to undermine the social progress that has been made in recent decades in protecting the rights of gays, lesbians, and their children.” He makes several arguments against the idea that this research undermines the case for same-sex marriage. He does not, however, dismiss the work as pseudoscience, instead calling it “probably the best that we can hope for, at least in the near future.”
Cynthia Osborne, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, also cautions against basing marriage policy on the Regnerus study, but she nonetheless allows that it “is more scientifically rigorous than most of the other studies in this area.” The Marks and Regnerus papers, she writes, “push forward the field of family studies.” Activists and journalists who favor same-sex marriage may hate the Regnerus study, but academics in the field, regardless of their views on marriage, have been taking it seriously.
The research cannot settle the argument over same-sex marriage and does not purport to do so. Consider the argument of William Saletan, a writer for Slate who supports same-sex marriage. He has been an honorable exception among liberal journalists in attempting to learn from the study rather than bury it. He suggests that the poor outcomes associated with parents in same-sex relationships are the result of the instability that those of their households in the study tended to exhibit.
Increasingly positive social attitudes about same-sex parents, and improvements in their legal status, might yield greater stability in the future. The kids being raised today by same-sex parents might thus have better outcomes — and the ones who will be raised tomorrow might have better ones still if governments agree to recognize same-sex marriages. One counterargument to Saletan’s thesis, though, can also find support in the data: Outcomes did not appear to vary based on the “gay-friendliness” of the state in which the children of gay men and lesbians were raised.
Other supporters of same-sex marriage might argue thus: Recognition of same-sex marriage will not increase the number of kids being raised by same-sex couples, but it will confer social and legal benefits on those kids. Or: Refusing to recognize same-sex marriage is unjust discrimination regardless of the statistics. Osborne notes that we do not outlaw large families just because studies find that they fare worse than smaller ones in some respects. Amato concurs, writing that “too much attention” has been given to social science in the litigation over same-sex marriage.
Perhaps so. Yet there is no denying that the Regnerus and Marks papers strengthen the case against same-sex marriage. If they are treated with the seriousness they deserve, they especially strengthen the case against judges’ declaring same-sex marriage constitutionally mandatory. Judges cited the studies purporting to show that on average same-sex couples raise children just as well as other parents in order to claim that legislators were not just wrong to distinguish between such couples and marriages but had no rational basis for doing so. Judges have found laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman unconstitutional on the theory that they discriminate against same-sex couples for no rational reason. That case just got harder to make, and it will get harder still if other studies replicate Regnerus’s results.
The liberal reaction to Regnerus has, for the most part, exhibited a kind of intolerance and closed-mindedness that can only impede the pursuit of knowledge. (The liberal reaction to Marks — silence — has not been much better.) Recall that Evan Wolfson, the activist, said that the 2 million children being raised by same-sex couples are doing great. All of them? How does he know? That it might be politically advantageous, emotionally satisfying, or intellectually convenient to suppose something is so does not mean that it is so in reality, or that those who deny that it is so should be shouted down. Liberalism has been growing increasingly committed to the cause of same-sex marriage, and that trend seems certain to continue. It matters a great deal whether it will be committed to it in an increasingly illiberal way. The Regnerus study may end up being even more important for the future of intellectual inquiry than for the future of marriage.