Two recently published articles in Social Sciences Research challenge the long-standing consensus that the children of same-sex parents turn out as well or better than those raised by opposite-gendered parents. Journalists, social commentators, and dinner guests often invoke the supposedly overwhelming evidence on this point, but anybody who actually reads through the literature might be surprised to find that the evidence is not as slam dunk as is popularly believed. In general, journalists do not have a good track record for conveying research findings, so I invite readers to read the articles and expected accompanying responses for themselves (Vol 41, Issue 4, July 2012).
Regnerus" article in this issue, entitled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” uses a randomly drawn sample of children who were raised with parents who had gay and lesbian relationships and finds relevant, statistically significant differences (some of them negative) on a variety of indicators. Unlike most of the prior literature, this sample does not use snowball sampling or other sampling techniques that open the door for selection bias.
The study has problems; the paucity of gay or lesbian parents makes studying this population particularly difficult methodologically, and as such the number of gay and lesbian cases involved, while higher than many of the prior studies on the subject, are still relatively low compared to other fields with more accessible data (in this case, lesbian mother n-value=175, gay father n-value=73, and only a handful of these individuals were actually raised by th same-sex couple from birth). However, those who dismiss the Regnerus study for its failings while maintaining that the consensus view is supported by the evidence are holding an ironic double standard for empirical rigor, applying stronger criteria for this study than they did for those studies that generated more politically correct results. (I am aware of only one case that involved a true “large-n” sample: Rosenfeld (2010) used Census Microdata to argue that children who only come from same-sex households do not progress any more slowly through the school system than those who come from heterosexual two-parent homes.) To (justifiably) be skeptical about drawing conclusions from the Regnerus study on the grounds that he is tackling a complicated matter that is not easily teased apart by relatively small sample sizes is to admit as much for the whole literature on the question, which raises the obvious question of whether the statements on same-sex parenting by professional bodies are in fact based in a genuinely objective appraisal of the state of the literature.
All the attention given to the Regnerus study has, I think, unfortunately drawn attention away from the other article in the same issue that is not so easily waved away. Loren Marks (2012) directly challenges the APA’s same-sex parenting advocacy by pointing out some of the obvious methodological flaws in the studies that the APA cited in their statement on the subject. Some of the same people who dismiss the Regnerus study for its methodological limitations seem to have a conveniently strong stomach for small sample sizes (in one case, five couples), self-selection biases, and lack of control groups--but only when the literature supports their preconceived view. Similarly those who accuse Regnerus of being ideologically driven appear comfortable excusing the degree to which ideology has driven pre-Regnerus same-sex parenting research.
However, it is doubtful that the final outcome of this academic debate will change anybody’s mind on the same-sex marriage question.
If the pro-SSM premise that LGBT individuals have a right to same-sex marriage akin to the right of interracial couples is accepted, then however the same-sex parenting outcome debate is settled by social scientists shouldn’t matter. There are demographics whose children are associated with worse life outcomes, but we don’t deny them the right to raise children (for example, those who come from a low-SES background). People who use the argument that parenting outcomes are as good for same-sex parents as a way to support same-sex parenting must logically accept the inverse of that argument, which would be that groups who otherwise would normally be allowed to raise children should have this right revoked if their children have worse outcomes. Since nobody is going to concede this point, then invoking any lack of a connection between the gender of parents and parenting outcomes is actually not relevant to this debate if the initial premise of the existence of a same-sex parenting right is assumed.
If the opposite premise is accepted, that children have the fundamental right to be raised by the two complementary halves of humanity as represented by a father and mother if such an arrangement does not conflict with other fundamental children’s rights, then the argument likewise does not stand or fall on the resolution of this academic debate on parenting outcomes. While some differences in outcome may be detectable in the future in cases where there was a lack of a mother or father-figure (indeed, Regnerus seems to suggest that such differences do exist), father-ness and mother-ness are not then reducible to advantages in lifetime earnings or years of completed education.
Ultimately, the policy debate is one of beliefs about whether the sexes are fundamentally complementary. Whatever the outcome of these debates in the academic sphere, advocates of either side will fall back on the parapets of their fundamental positions regarding this issue, which is ultimately where the real battle lines are drawn. While the same-sex parenting outcomes debate provides dinner-conversation sound bites, it is not wholly apparent how relevant it is.
Whatever the political implications, the pursuit of truth is best served by the unfettered questioning of popular notions regardless of institutional or cultural pressures or predispositions. While such investigations can incite reprisals from those who are threatened (as evidenced by Regnerus being investigated by his University soon after his article was published), a committed academic has no other choice but to continue forward. The authors of these two studies are to be commended for their willingness to openly challenge what has become an article of faith for some.
Marks, L. (2012). Same-sex parenting and children’s outcomes: A closer examination of the American psychological association’s brief on lesbian and gay parenting. Social Science Research, 41(4), 735-751. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.03.006
Regnerus, M. (2012). How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study. Social Science Research, 41(4), 752-770. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.03.009
Rosenfeld, M. J. (2010). Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School. Demography, 47(3), 755-775. Population Association of America. Retrieved from http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=3000058&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract
Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen (2012) "New Research Challenges the Consensus on Same-Sex Parenting, But Does It Matter?" SquareTwo, Vol. 5 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranney Parenting.html, [give access date].
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I. Joseph Stanford
There is another reason that any negative data regarding the outcomes of same sex parenting would not persuade anyone away from their default position, no matter how well the study was conducted. Any worse outcomes that might be found can be hypothesized to be due to social stigma placed by society on gay relationships and parenting, rather than to anything about the parenting. Paradoxically, we might have to wait until gay parenting is more widely accepted and in the mainstream before anyone can do research that might be able to get past this criticism.
Stephen Cranney responds: That's completely true and is another reason why the empirical debate is not as relevant as the press attention afforded it makes it seem. I am skeptical that the social stigma against same-sex parents will ever completely disappear (according to some studies it still plays a role in the housing market in Scandinavian countries, for example), but such long-run, teleological "direction of history" surmises are terribly speculative, so we'll just have to wait and see.