Guest editorial: Same-sex parenting and sound science

 

John A. Di Camillo, Be.L.

 

The science used to cast homosexual parenting in a neutral or even positive light has proved unsound. Two new studies, published in Social Science Research, challenge a position that is summarized in the words of the American Psychological Association’s 2005 brief on same-sex parenting:

There is no evidence to suggest that lesbian women or gay men are unfit to be parents or that psychosocial development among children of lesbian women or gay men is compromised relative to that among offspring of heterosexual parents. 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. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children’s psychosocial growth.1

 

New studies

The first study, authored by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has taken the majority of the limelight.2 His New Family Structures Study (NFSS) boasts data from a significantly larger, randomized, heterogeneous and nationally representative sample (15,058 adults were screened, and 2,988 between the ages of 18 and 39 completed full surveys) with more adequate comparison groups than past studies. The outcomes were reported by adult subjects themselves, rather than by parents, and included not only “soft” indicators, such as emotional, relational or psychological state, but also more objective matters of social concern.3

While proponents of the homosexual political agenda may fear that “the study, which found inferior economic, educational, social and psychological outcomes among children of gay parents, comes across as evidence that homosexuals are unfit to raise kids,”4 Regnerus himself draws no conclusions about causal relationships, recognizes the major limits of his study, acknowledges confounding variables 5 and warns “that one should not infer from these findings alone answers to challenging contemporary ethical and legal issues.” 6 His conclusions can be summarized in two simple points: (1) the claim that there are no differences in child development outcomes has no factual support, and (2) children are most likely to be successful as adults if their entire childhood is spent with their married biological parents, particularly if they stay married.7

The second study, by Loren Marks of Louisiana State University, is an analysis of 59 major same-sex parenting studies.8 It shows how not even one study cited by the American Psychological Association in its 2005 brief meets the statistical standards necessary to prove the “null hypothesis” – the conclusion that there are no significant differences – between the effects on children of same-sex parenting versus married, biological, heterosexual parenting. The critiques include homogeneous sampling, missing or inadequate comparison groups, contradictory data, parent reporting, convenience sampling and failure to meet the APA’s urged statistical power standards.9

In short, as Marks puts it, “not a single study, including the few that reported (statistical) power, meets the standards needed to detect a small effect size,” 10 meaning that all the studies are likely guilty of a statistical Type II error, which is “incorrectly concluding that there is no difference between groups.” 11

The APA posted a response that fails to address the implication that its conclusions, as mentioned in the 2005 brief, are overblown and empirically unwarranted.12 Based on their true statement that “there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation,” an illogical non sequitur is passed off as true: “lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”

In scientific reasoning, a lack of evidence for a link between orientation and parenting effectiveness does not lead to any conclusion one way or the other – unless, that is, one leaps from the realm of science into agenda-driven politics.

 

Parenting implications

The two studies, taken together, emphasize two points. The first is that more reliable and statistically powerful studies are still necessary to draw meaningful scientific conclusions about the small-size effects of same-sex parenting versus other forms of parenting. In fact, using Marks’s analysis, even Regnerus fails to avoid the Type II error regarding same-sex groups: at least 393 subjects are necessary,13 yet the NFSS found only 248 respondents who reported a parent having had a same-sex relationship (175 lesbian mothers and 73 gay fathers). Nonetheless, the improved study is a dramatic step in the right direction. As an editorial in Deseret News aptly notes, “Sound science demands that findings be testable, replicable and falsifiable. The NFSS appears to provide researchers a framework for that kind of sound rigorous social science with regard to the vital issue of family structure and child well-being.” 14

Despite the recognized imperfections of the Regnerus study, it can surely be said, in the words of Patrick Fagan of the Family Research Council, that “if you can’t draw conclusions from it, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell you can draw conclusions from those other (same-sex parenting) studies.” 15 Douglas Allen, a Canadian economist and expert on same-sex marriage studies, agrees: “If the Regnerus study is to be thrown out, then practically everything else in the field has to go with it.” 16

The second point is an affirmation of the traditional family structure. In the words of Charles Cooke of the National Review Online, “the major takeaway from the report is less an indictment that same-sex households are a negative thing and more an affirmation that intact, biological households are a positive thing.” 17 Ross Douthat of the New York Times, summarizing the abundant and sound science of recent decades regarding heterosexual family situations, recalls that “no other parental arrangement, from single motherhood to cohabitation to shared custody, affords as many social, economic and emotional advantages as being raised by two biological parents joined in a lifelong commitment.” 18 According to the Deseret News, this confirms “what biology, sociology, custom and religion have long indicated: Family structure counts and the intact married biological family is the healthiest structure for nurturing the next generation.” 19 As Regnerus himself concludes, “the NFSS clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults – on multiple counts across a variety of domains – when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married.” 20

In sum, the existing science does not provide definitive answers and solid empirical support specifically for or against same-sex parenting. Though the conclusions from existing studies are often overblown and tailored to political and legal agendas, any attempt to do so cannot accurately claim to be supported by sound science.

Regnerus and Marks have opened the doors to greater rigor, but social science researchers expect it will take years – and perhaps decades – before the effect of same-sex parenting and other family structure changes becomes apparent.21 In the meantime, the debate shall go forward based on principles – so let reason, seeking to understand the human person and his true good, take to the field on both sides, ever wary of the manipulative use of scientific data to support ideological claims that the research available “is accepted beyond serious debate” in the scientific community. 22

 

Editor’s note: John A. Di Camillo is an Ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He holds a licentiate degree in bioethics.

 

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Ethics & Medics © The National Catholic Bioethics Center. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

 

 

1 American Psychological Association, Lesbian and Gay Parenting (Washington, DC: APA, 2005), available at http://www.apa.org/ pi/lgbt/resources/parenting.aspx.

2 Mark Regnerus, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” Social Science Research 41 (2012): 752–770.

3 Ibid., Table 1, 759–760.

4 William Saletan, “How Lousy Gay Parenthood Makes a Case for Gay Marriage,” Slate, June 11, 2012.

5 Regnerus, “How Different,” 755–756, 766.

6 “Family Structure Counts,” editorial, Deseret News, June 9, 2012, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765581791/Editorial-Family-structure-counts.html?pg=all.

7 See Regnerus, “How Different,” 766.

8 Loren Marks, “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 (2012): 735–751.

9 See Ibid., 735–745.

10 Ibid., 747.

11 Ibid., 745. This assumes the effect size is small, which is the typical case in social science research since “detecting a novel ‘large effect’ from a single variable (whether it is divorce, remarriage, or same-sex parenting) is a comparatively rare occurrence” (Ibid., note 84).

12 American Psychological Association, “APA on Children Raised by Gay and Lesbian Parents,” June 11, 2012, http://www.apa.org/news/press/response/gay-parents.aspx.

13 See Marks, “Same-Sex Parenting,” 747, citing Robert Lerner and Althea K. Nagai, No Basis: What the Studies Don’t Tell Us about Same-Sex Parenting (Washington, DC: Marriage Law Project, 2001).

14 “Family Structure Counts.”

15 Wetzstein, “Study Suggests.”

16 Douglas W. Allen, “The Regnerus Debate,” National Review Online, June 14, 2012.

17 Charles C. W. Cooke, “Is Gay Parenting Bad for the Kids?” National Review Online, June 10, 2012, original emphases.

18 Ross Douthat, “Gay Parents and the Marriages Debate,” New York Times, June 11, 2012.

19 “Family Structure Counts.”

20 Regnerus, “How Different,” 766.

21 Lois M. Collins, “Studies Challenge Widely Held Assumptions about Same-Sex Parenting,” Deseret News, June 9, 2012.

22 Yet that is exactly what the U.S. District Court Ninth Circuit did in the decision Perry v. Schwarzenegger, C 09-2292 VRW (January 11, 2010), https://ecf.cand.uscourts.gov/cand/09cv2292/ files/09cv2292-ORDER.pdf.

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