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.