2020_010_A
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“Same-sex parent study” is not what it claims

“Same-sex parent study” is not what it claims

A study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus which claims that children of gay parents fare worse than others raises numerous red flags that do not support such a conclusion.


Nathanael Frank writes in the LA Times:

While Regnerus critiques “same-sex couples” raising kids, his study does not actually compare children raised by same-sex couples with those raised by different-sex couples. The criterion it uses is whether a parent “ever ha[d] a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex.” In fact, only a small proportion of its sample spent more than a few years living in a household headed by a same-sex couple. Indeed, the study acknowledges that what it’s really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which parents broke up. “A failed heterosexual union,” Regnerus writes in the study, “is clearly the modal method” — the most common characteristic for the group that he lumps in with same-sex-headed households. For example, most of the respondents who said their mothers had a lesbian relationship also endured the searing experience of having their mothers leave the household as the family collapsed.

In other words, Regnerus is concluding that when families endure a shattering separation, it is likely to shatter the lives of those in them. And this is news?

Not only is it not news, it keeps alive the mistaken impression that social science is on the side of anti-gay policy and law. Ever since same-sex marriage started to become a reality in the U.S., conservative groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Witherspoon Institute, which helped fund the Regnerus study, have cited research that — it’s claimed — shows that gay parenting is a bad idea….

The trouble is that no scholarly research, including the Regnerus paper, has ever compared children of stable same-sex couples to children of stable different-sex couples, in part because an adequate sample size is hard to come by. (Regnerus acknowledges he was unable to find an adequate sample size, but he went ahead and made the comparison anyway.) Like the Regnerus paper, all these studies show is that divorce and single-parenthood raise risks for kids. Indeed, the basis of the 20-year “consensus” is that two parents are better than one, not that parents have to be different genders.

Regnerus seeks to enhance the credibility and relevance of this body of research by including in his sample respondents who actually had a gay parent instead of just people from broken or single-parent homes. But because his sample is mostly made up of fractured families, he fails the most basic requirement of social science research — assessing causation by holding all other variables constant. What he has produced is no better than its predecessors at yielding insight into the effect of same-sex parenting.

There is a larger point, however, that can be lost in the debate over how to read the data. There is no basis in the recent history of American social policy for testing the parenting skills of a class of citizens before we grant them permission to parent — or to marry. Given all the research on the hardships of children raised by single parents, there is still no movement to preemptively remove kids from broken homes after every divorce or to ban single people from having kids; such policies would be patently inhumane and unenforceable. Growing up in poverty increases the risk of a wide range of social and psychological ills, yet since the craze for eugenics died down, no one is proposing banning poor people from marriage or child rearing. And some ethnic and racial groups are statistically less likely to get or stay married, yet there is no ethnic litmus test for marriage or parenting — only a gay one.

This is not the only article debunking the claims of the Regnerus study.

Amy Davidson, Senior Editor at The New Yorker:

What would make a study of how children raised by gay and lesbian parents do in life helpful? Rigor, valid comparisons, and a sense of what the words in that sentence—“raised,” “gay and lesbian,” and “parents”—might mean. None of those seem to be true of the latest work from Mark Regnerus, called the “New Family Structures Study” (a title that is itself misleading), which he writes about at Slate. It purports to show the very harmful effects of having gay and lesbian parents. This would be in contradiction to a whole series of studies in recent years that showed children in those families doing very well. Attacking the methodology of a study whose conclusions you don’t like can be a lazy default reaction. But, in this case, the way it was conducted is so breathtakingly sloppy that it is useful only as an illustration of how you can play fast and loose with statistics.

Rob Tisinai looks in detail at the numbers, and is amazed that Regnerus both admits that he lacks the numbers to make conclusions and still does so anyway.

E.J. Graff, in The American Prospect, continues the critique:

When is a new study “research,” and when is it propaganda? That’s the question to ask when looking at Mark Regnerus’s “study,” released this past weekend, on children who had a parent who had an affair with someone of the same sex. Regnerus compares children who grew up in an intact household from birth to adulthood with children who started in a heterosexual marriage but who had a parent who crossed over to the gay side. And yet Regnerus is touting it as a study on the real-life experiences of children who grew up with lesbian or gay parents….

The study compares how children fare (with) stable parents to how children fare under divorce or infidelity. We call that “comparing apples to oranges.” Of course the oranges don’t have black seeds. They’re oranges. If he had compared how children did in heterosexual stepfamilies or heterosexual single-parent families with the lesbian or gay stepfamilies or single-parent homes, we might learn something. But as it is, his research—despite his propaganda spin, which argues that these findings should militate against same-sex marriage—tells you nothing about the effects of having parents who happen to be lesbian or gay. It says absolutely nothing about how children fare growing up from infancy in lesbian or gay households that affirmatively chose to be parents (as opposed to having them accidentally, which is, to understate the case, quite rare if you’re lesbian or gay). That affirmative choice is in itself a good thing for the children, real studies have shown.

A look at Regnerus’s agenda and at this study’s funders—the socially right-wing organizations the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation—tells all you need to know about Regnerus’s motivations.

When I was a chaplain at a major hospital, we would sometimes attend “Grand Rounds”. Usually they were areas of continuing medical education, and some of them were “sponsored” (complete with lunch) by pharmaceutical companies. Every single one of those that I attended just happened to end with the conclusion that a certain drug was helpful in treating the subject, and “low and behold”, the certain drug just happened to be manufactured by the sponsoring pharmaceutical company. One didn’t have to be expert to figure out what was going on: all you had to do was follow the money.

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