The Regnerus Study on Same-Sex Parenting

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Finally we’ve got a study on this topic that begins to provide meaningful results. Science Direct have the text of “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” (pdf here). Here’s the abstract:

The New Family Structures Study (NFSS) is a social-science data-collection project that fielded a survey to a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18–39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements. In this debut article of the NFSS, I compare how the young-adult children of a parent who has had a same-sex romantic relationship fare on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables when compared with six other family-of-origin types. The results reveal numerous, consistent differences, especially between the children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents. The results are typically robust in multivariate contexts as well, suggesting far greater diversity in lesbian-parent household experiences than convenience-sample studies of lesbian families have revealed. The NFSS proves to be an illuminating, versatile dataset that can assist family scholars in understanding the long reach of family structure and transitions.

Now, at this point, some will say “ah yes, but we have other studies showing the opposite – that there are no effects of same-sex parenting”. The difference with this study, however, is set out by Mark Regnerus, the author:

Concern has arisen, however, about the methodological quality of many studies focusing on same-sex parents. In particular, most are based on non-random, non-representative data often employing small samples that do not allow for generalization to the larger population of gay and lesbian families ( [Nock, 2001][Perrin and Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, 2002] and [Redding, 2008]). For instance, many published studies on the children of same-sex parents collect data from “snowball” or convenience samples (e.g., [Bos et al., 2007][Brewaeys et al., 1997][Fulcher et al., 2008],[Sirota, 2009] and [Vanfraussen et al., 2003]). One notable example of this is the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study, analyses of which were prominently featured in the media in 2011 (e.g., Huffington Post, 2011). The NLLFS employs a convenience sample, recruited entirely by self-selection from announcements posted “at lesbian events, in women’s bookstores, and in lesbian newspapers” in Boston, Washington, and San Francisco. While I do not wish to downplay the significance of such a longitudinal study—it is itself quite a feat—this sampling approach is a problem when the goal (or in this case, the practical result and conventional use of its findings) is to generalize to a population. All such samples are biased, often in unknown ways.

Regenerus is also confident this is a better data set,

Besides being brand-new data, several other aspects about the NFSS are novel and noteworthy. First, it is a study of young adults rather than children or adolescents, with particular attention paid to reaching ample numbers of respondents who were raised by parents that had a same-sex relationship. Second, it is a much larger study than nearly all of its peers. The NFSS interviewed just under 3000 respondents, including 175 who reported their mother having had a same-sex romantic relationship and 73 who said the same about their father. Third, it is a weighted probability sample, from which meaningful statistical inferences and interpretations can be drawn. While the 2000 (and presumably, the 2010) US Census Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) offers the largest nationally-representative sample-based information about youth in same-sex households, the Census collects much less outcome information of interest. The NFSS, however, asked numerous questions about respondents’ social behaviors, health behaviors, and relationships.

but that is not to say we should overstate what can be garnered from the study:

There are several things the NFSS is not. The NFSS is not a longitudinal study, and therefore cannot attempt to broach questions of causation. It is a cross-sectional study, and collected data from respondents at only one point in time, when they were between the ages of 18 and 39. It does not evaluate the offspring of gay marriages, since the vast majority of its respondents came of age prior to the legalization of gay marriage in several states. This study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships and their legal legitimacy.

Indeed, but we should expect that data to be used within the wider political discussions. So one of the key arguments being made around this whole vexed issue is that marriage is, not least, procreative and that heterosexual monogamy is the best place for kids to be raised. The facts in support, or otherwise, of this contention should inform the discussion.

And so it is to the facts that we turn, passing by the discussion on sampling etc. The stats geeks can knock themselves out on that one. Regenerus used 40 measures of “success” such as marital status, education, mental health etc. measured across 8 different family types, heterosexual or homosexual relationships of parents, divorce/seperation/singleness etc. He summarises the results:

At a glance, the number of statistically-significant differences between respondents from IBFs [child of a still-intact biological family] and respondents from the other seven types of family structures/experiences is considerable, and in the vast majority of cases the optimal outcome—where one can be readily discerned—favors IBFs. Table 2 reveals 10 (out of 15 possible) statistically-significant differences in simple t-tests between IBFs and LMs [lesbian mothers] (the pool of respondents who reported that their mother has had a lesbian relationship), one higher than the number of simple differences (9) between IBFs and respondents from both single-parent and stepfamilies. All but one of those associations is significant in logistic regression analyses contrasting LMs and IBFs (the omitted category).

Simply put, in the majority of measured outcomes (including whether the family received welfare, the individual was currently on public assistance, full-time employment, unemployment, undergoing therapy, having an affair, contracting STI’s, touched sexually by an adult while a child, forced to have sex against their will, educational attainment, sense of safety in the family of origin, closeness to biological mother/father, depression, attachment, level of household income, current relationship quality etc.) there was a statistically significant difference between IBF families and at least one other type of family, almost all of which included a homosexual parent.

Regenerus turns to discuss the results:

Just how different are the adult children of men and women who pursue same-sex romantic (i.e., gay and lesbian) relationships, when evaluated using population-based estimates from a random sample? The answer, as might be expected, depends on to whom you compare them. When compared with children who grew up in biologically (still) intact, mother–father families, the children of women who reported a same-sex relationship look markedly different on numerous outcomes, including many that are obviously suboptimal (such as education, depression, employment status, or marijuana use). On 25 of 40 outcomes (or 63%) evaluated here, there are bivariate statistically-significant (p < 0.05) differences between children from still-intact, mother/father families and those whose mother reported a lesbian relationship. On 11 of 40 outcomes (or 28%) evaluated here, there are bivariate statistically-significant (p < 0.05) differences between children from still-intact, mother/father families and those whose father reported a gay relationship. Hence, there are differences in both comparisons, but there are many more differences by any method of analysis in comparisons between young-adult children of IBFs and LMs than between IBFs and GFs [gay father].

There is, of course, much more to be said (and there is an extensive discussion in the paper) but the bare facts are there. Regenerus draws the correct obvious conclusion (with context included so as not to overstate the case):

Do children need a married mother and father to turn out well as adults? No, if we observe the many anecdotal accounts with which all Americans are familiar. Moreover, there are many cases in the NFSS where respondents have proven resilient and prevailed as adults in spite of numerous transitions, be they death, divorce, additional or diverse romantic partners, or remarriage. But the NFSS also clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults—on multiple counts and across a variety of domains—when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.

Needless to say some people aren’t going to like this and there has already been considerable discussion and opposition. A good example of the negative response is Ilana Yurkiawicz who writes in Scientific American,

A key concern that many identified, correctly, was that what Regnerus’ paper really compared were stable versus unstable households,regardless of the sexual orientation of the parents (for a clear and concise version of this argument, I’d recommend this piece in Discovery News.)

The linked piece contains this sort of critique:

“He doesn’t have an actual category of gay parents in the project that you can isolate and say the most important thing in this kid’s childhood is that they were raised by gay parents,” Stacey told LiveScience. “These are kids whose parents, maybe they divorced, maybe they separated, maybe they had a scandalous affair, we just don’t know.” [5 Myths About Gay People]

In contrast, a fair comparison would have matched up children of same-sex parents with children of heterosexual parents who looked otherwise similar — no extra divorces, no extra separations, no extra time in foster care for the kids, said Gary Gates, a researcher at the Williams Institute, a sexual orientation policy think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Instead, Regnerus categorized all people who said their parents were once in a same-sex relationship in the same group, even if those people had also experienced major childhood upheavals. About half of the people whose parents had ever been in gay or lesbian relationships also said their parents had once been in aheterosexual marriage, suggesting that a great many of these children were the products of a heterosexual relationship in which one parent later came out as gay or bisexual. Fifty-eight percent of those raised by moms who’d indicated a lesbian experience said their mother once left the household during their youth, and 14 percent said they’d spent time in foster care.

This critique might hold, except that when you go back to the table of results you see that there is, indeed, a distinction between a homosexual parent and (for example) a single parent. Again, distinction is drawn between homosexual parents and those who were subject to divorce. The distinctions are there, and are pretty evident to see when you scan down the table.

But it’s not really the stats that are the issue. Bear in mind that for years now every paper that claims there is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual parent has been trumpeted, despite the clear problems with those studies that others point out. This is, at the end of the day, an argument of ideology. Yurkiawicz puts it like this:

What we have to remember is that there is a big difference between an empirical finding and a policy recommendation. Data can be used to show many things we might not like, including differences between groups. But would we, or should we, legislate based on that? Infringe on anyone’s rights? To do so would be to reduce an individual and his/her potential to the group he/she happened to be born into. To place limits on a person’s rights based on incidental factors beyond his/her control should be recognized as bigotry. We don’t need to reject data to make that political point.

That last sentence is key. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what the data says – there is a political point being made. This is ideology driving the debate, not facts. But perhaps we need to be wary?

By saying empirical data on who rears more stable children is a factor in deciding who should be able to have children, you would be scientifically remiss in stopping at gay and lesbian couples. Rather, you would have to study all groups who want to have children, and compare and contrast outcomes. By race. By religion. By age. By political affiliation. By socioeconomic background. And the list goes on and on. This task becomes even more difficult when you consider that drawing lines between groups can be an arbitrary thing in the first place, and how you decide to draw those lines can impact your results. I have absolutely no doubt you would find data revealing differences between other groups – ones that have no restrictions whatsoever on having children, and who are not under political scrutiny for wanting to.

But it’s not the same as the other factors she raises, since the issue at stake is not a comparison between these groups but between heterosexual and homosexual parenting precisely because some are arguing there is no difference. The question before is not whether race/religion/age or political affiliation matter, because heterosexual couples of all those categories are able normally to have children. It’s a far different sort of question – it’s whether we ought to recognise and affirm a biological impossibility – that homosexuals be given the rights to have children by IVF or adoption (setting aside the question of those who “come out” when they already have children).

The bottom line is that Regenerus has shown us that there is a difference that can be measured in the outcomes of children depending upon their parenting and this has a direct impact upon the claims that homosexual parenting is no different to heterosexual parenting. It’s a valuable addition to the discussion.

But we ought to be realistic about what difference it will actually make. Critics like Yurkiawicz demonstrate that, at the end of the day, statistics don’t matter at all. There is an agenda to be pursued and to hell with the numbers if they get in the way.

Once again, a sorry sorry outcome for the intellectual progress of our culture if we so consistently reject evidence and reasoned conclusions.

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