The author of a new study showing some negative outcomes for young adults whose parents had same-sex relationships is under attack because his findings conflict with what, in some corners, has become conventional wisdom.
Apparently, the idea that there is “no difference” between children of same-sex parents and their peers raised in traditional married mother-and-father households has become so entrenched among some advocates that new research presenting a contrasting picture is unwelcome—to put it mildly.
University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus’s New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a large, nationally representative random sample of 3,000 young adults ages 18–39. It found better outcomes for those raised in intact biological families when compared to peers in seven other family structures.
Despite the quality of the sample and the wide range of findings, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD) called it a “flawed, misleading, and scientifically unsound paper that seeks to disparage lesbian and gay parents.” A writer at The American Prospect said it was “appalling and irresponsible.” An assistant editor at The New Republic called Regnerus a “retrograde researcher” and suggested that this study should “mark the beginning of the end of Mark Regnerus’s credibility with respectable news outlets.”
And these are the folks who urge us to be tolerant of differences and respect scientific research.
The peer-reviewed study that some are writing off as “dangerous propaganda” has in fact been credited by its critical reviewers for advancing research through its use of a large, nationally representative random sample. In a response that appears in the same issue of the journal Social Science Research, demographer Cynthia Osborne says that “the Regnerus study is more scientifically rigorous than most of the other studies in this area.”
Similarly, Penn State sociologist Paul Amato writes that the NFSS “is probably the best that we can hope for, at least in the near future.”
Another Penn State sociologist, David Eggebeen, concludes that Regnerus’s study and Loren Marks’s analysis of prior studies, published in the same journal, “offer reasonable arguments for…more caution when drawing strong conclusions based on the available science.”
“Caution” is not what we’ve seen to date in judicial activists’ use of social science in decisions that overturn society’s understanding of marriage. For example, in his opinion overruling California voters’ Prop 8 marriage amendment, U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker included in his findings of fact this statement:
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.
In the most recent opinion on Prop 8, which denied review of an earlier decision against Prop 8 and set up the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, dissenting Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain recalled that when President Obama announced in May his support for same-sex marriage, he also urged that “a conversation continue in a respectful way.”
The Ninth Circuit’s decision effectively curtailed such civil discourse, according to O’Scannlain:
Today our court has silenced any such respectful conversation.… [W]e have now declared that animus must have been the only conceivable motivation for a sovereign State to have remained committed to a definition of marriage that has existed for millennia.
Civil society depends on reasoned debate in the court of law and the court of public opinion. When activists in either arena deem some reasoning or research illegitimate—accusing it of animus—without engaging its merits, civil discourse screeches to a halt.
Regnerus’s and Marks’s research has significantly advanced analysis of children’s outcomes in new family structures. Marks’s review of prior studies found data “drawn primarily from small conveniences samples” that cannot support generalized claims for the population at large. Meanwhile, as the Osborne and Amato statements above convey, the NFSS sets a new standard for quality of research comparing emerging family forms.
Such rigor should be welcomed—not rejected—and the new information should enhance—not preempt—debate about the important policy questions related to the institution of marriage.