The Supreme Court, Gay Parenting and Science (Part 2)

What does science say about intact, biological, married parenting?

 Correction Appended

While little is understood about children raised by gay or lesbian couples, there are a host of studies showing that children do better when raised by intact biological married parents. Plus, there is some preliminary research suggesting that children raised by gay or lesbian couples may not do as well as those raised by their married mother and father.

Part one of this series noted that researchers are at least two decades away from being able to reliably measure the health and well-being outcomes of children raised by gay or lesbian couples, despite what the American Sociological Association argued in an amicus brief for one of the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases on gay marriage. The phenomenon of same-sex parenting has only recently become socially acceptable and widespread enough to begin gathering reliable data. Researchers require large random samples that include same-sex parents. Plus, they need time for these children of same-sex parents to grow up, so they can compare their well-being to those not raised by same-sex parents.

It was also pointed out that most of the current studies of same-sex parents showing no difference between same-sex and heterosexual parents, or that same-sex parents did better, relied upon small, non-random, non-representative samples, which are not considered reliable by the standards of scientific research.

While same-sex parenting is too new for researchers to draw any conclusions about its impact on children, other forms of parenting are not new. Researchers have been able to draw conclusions about the well-being of children raised by other family structures – widowed parents, divorced parents, dual custody parents, co-habiting but not married parents, adoptive parents, and parents who have re-married or had multiple marriages, for instance. All of these different family structures can be compared to the traditional family structure – couples who get married, make babies and stay married.

Those raised by parents in a traditional family structure enjoy better physical health, fewer psychological problems and less mental illness, and lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse. They are also less likely to go to jail, more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to attend college and more likely to finish college if they do attend. These findings are consistent even when controlling for other factors, such as race, education and income.

(For a summary of the research in this area, see Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, which was written by a team of 18 scholars and chaired by W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.)

These findings have been so consistent that they are widely accepted among liberals and conservatives alike. President Barack Obama, for instance, has spoken often about the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. The Obama White House has also promoted, whose mission is to "to provide, facilitate, and disseminate current research, proven and innovative strategies that will encourage and strengthen fathers and families."

While most of the research on gay parenting relies upon small non-random samples, one recent study did use a large random sample. The New Family Structures Study at the University of Texas at Austin used a random sample of 15,000 Americans between 18 and 39 and asked them if their mother or father ever had a same-sex relationship. They interviewed further those who answered "yes." This resulted in a sample of 248 – a small sample, but still much larger than most previous studies on the topic. Results from the study were published by principal researcher Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research.

Regnerus found that those who reported that their parents had a same-sex relationship were more likely to report being less healthy, more depressed, and unemployed. They had more sex partners, more sexual victimization, were more likely to have smoked marijuana and ran afoul of the law, and to reflect negatively on their childhood.

As one might expect, given that it cut against the deeply held views about homosexuality among sociologists, a field where liberals are strongly represented, Regnerus' work generated some controversy. Typically in academia, professors respond to research they disagree with by publishing more and better research showing why the offending research is wrong. Regnerus' critics chose a different path. They accused him of academic misconduct and asked the president of UT-Austin to sanction him.

There are limitations to Regnerus' work, to be sure. For instance, to get a large enough sample, he collapsed several categories of same-sex parents – those who had a short-term same-sex tryst but were heterosexual most of their lives are in the same category as a same-sex couple in a long-term relationship. Regnerus freely admits the study's limitations. He does not expect it to be the final word on the topic. Rather, he views the study as a first step in a long-term project.

So the Regnerus study is inconclusive about gay parenting, but it does raise doubts about the earlier studies using small non-random samples showing "no difference" in the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents. Additionally, unlike the authors of many of those studies, Regnerus is not asking courts and policy makers to use his study as the basis of public policy decisions regarding gay parenting, only that his study should bring doubts to the claim of "no difference" between gay parents and intact biological parents.

An amicus brief filed by Regnerus and six other social scientists for the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with gay marriage, therefore concluded that while science does not know enough about the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents, the science is conclusive about married heterosexual parents.

"The social science of same-sex parenting structures remains young," they wrote, "and subject to significant limitations about what can be known, given that the influence of household structures and experiences on child outcomes is not a topic for experimental research design. But those analyses that employ large, population-based samples continue to document differences, in contrast to contrary scholarly claims. With so many significant outstanding questions about whether children develop as well in same-sex households as in opposite-sex households, it remains prudent for government to continue to recognize marriage as a union of a man and a woman, thereby promoting what is known to be an ideal environment for raising children."

Correction: April 5, 2013:

An article from April 3, 2013 incorrectly stated that the National Fatherhood Initiative was begun by President Barack Obama. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, or, a different organization, was founded in 2005 and reauthorized by the Obama administration in 2010.

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