Last year, when I published my article on same-sex marriage, commenters asserted that the academic literature suggested children with gay or lesbian parenting situations did just as well as those with heterosexual parents. As I looked into it, even as a non-specialist, I could note that many such studies displayed methodological weaknesses such as the lack of control groups, or self-selection and self-reporting by participants. This should have cautioned against such dogmatic conclusions.
As the wider debate continues, I draw readers’ attention to two studies published in the journal Social Science Research. In these papers, researchers from secular American universities have raised questions over the accuracy of the often repeated claim that there are no differences in outcomes between children raised in same-sex parent households and those of intact biological families.
In his study, Mark Regnerus, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, used data from the New Family Structures Study, a large nationally representative sample of just under 3,000 young Americans aged 18 to 39, to compare how children raised in eight different family structures fared on 40 social, emotional, and relationship outcomes.
According to his findings, children of mothers who have had same-sex relationships were significantly different as young adults on 25 of 40 outcome measures, compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both their married, biological parents. For example, they reported:
- significantly lower levels of income,
- more receipt of public welfare,
- lower levels of employment,
- poorer mental and physical health,
- poorer relationship quality with current partner, and
- higher levels of smoking and criminality.
Prof Regnerus says,
This study, based on a rare large probability sample, reveals far greater diversity in the experience of lesbian motherhood (and to a lesser extent, gay fatherhood) than has been previously acknowledged or understood. [...] The most significant story in this study is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.
A second review article of existing studies comes from Dr Loren Marks, Associate Professor, School of Human Ecology, Louisiana State University. Dr Marks reviewed studies published between 1980 and 2005 cited by the 2005 official brief on same-sex parenting by the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA asserted that: “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.”
By contrast, Dr Marks finds that much of the research that formed the basis for this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief, more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples that did not include any minority individuals or families; nearly half lacked a heterosexual comparison group; and few examined outcomes that extend beyond childhood such as intergenerational poverty, educational attainment, and criminality, which are a key focus of studies on children of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. Dr Marks concludes that a lack of high quality data leaves significant questions unaddressed and unanswered.
This same current edition of Social Science Research (41/4, July 2012) also publishes three responses to these two studies from other American academics, along with a rejoinder from each original author. So people for themselves can judge the merits of the evidence adduced and the inferences made by the various academics. I was able to download PDFs of all 7 papers from this link page for the journal.
It is important for Christians and others interested in the debates about same-sex marriage and adoption to observe due caution in drawing conclusions from these studies.
For example, Dr Marks says,
The jury is still out on whether being raised by same-sex parents disadvantages children [...] However, the available data on which the APA draws its conclusions, derived primarily from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalized claim either way.
And Prof Regnerus notes that his study does not address why the differences exist (the old ‘correlation does not prove causation’ issue). Nor does it predict if more accepting attitudes to same-sex relationships will mean children growing up today with same-sex parents might one day fare better in similar analysis.
Prof Regnerus added,
Nor does the study tell us that same-sex parents are necessarily bad parents [...] Rather, family forms that are associated with instability or non-biological parents tend to pose risks for children as they age into adulthood.
Interestingly, this finding is consistent with the Australian research and policy paper, published in July 2011, entitled “For Kids’ Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People” (PDF link) by Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney. Parkinson’s paper reviews current research into the broad area of child welfare. Parkinson says,
In the last twenty years or so, the dominant policy direction has been to treat all families alike without reference to family structure. Yet the overwhelming evidence from research is that children do best in two-parent married families, and this is not just the result of selection effects.
Children will be raised in a variety of family situations for all sorts of reasons. Each child should be loved and supported, not only by parents, but more broadly by the wider community without prejudice.
But I believe Christians can in good conscience be confident in continuing to think that wherever possible, children ought to be given the chance to be raised by their biological parents in intact marriages. It is in the best interests of children that social policy reflects this preference.
- Press Release from the Publisher of Social Science Research
- Deseret News, “Studies challenge widely held assumptions about same-sex parenting” by Lois M. Collins.