When discussing the possible effects on children of being raised by same-sex parents, I have told my students that the best evidence we have is that there are no negative effects. I also tell them that the best evidence we have is not very good. Thus they should remember the injunction of Karl Popper—in science everything is subject to revision and rejection.
The latest entrant to the discussion of same-sex parenting is Mark Regnerus from the University of Texas. Dr. Regnerus found that having at least one parent who (at any time) had a same-sex relationship is associated with an increased risk for negative outcomes. A firestorm of controversy has erupted. Charges of academic misconduct have been leveled. The charges were investigated by the University of Texas which concluded that misconduct had not occurred.
That is not to say there are no legitimate issues with the study. A person who was involved with funding the research was also involved in the peer-review process leading to publication. He should have declined to review the study due to a conflict of interest. However, there was no sleight of hand to hide methodological problems. Readers can identify strengths and weaknesses and make judgments themselves. Indeed it is promised that the data will be made publically available for others to analyze as they see fit. Regnerus is being more open than most researchers.
The most important issue with the paper is whether Regnerus’ comparisons are fair and appropriate. When choosing a group of children of heterosexual parents, many possible family structures could be used (e.g., step families, single parents). Regnerus chose to use children raised by both biological parents even though his data would have allowed for other groups to be used. This sets the bar high as, on average, children who were raised by both biological parents have the best outcomes. When comparing different family structures, feelings can easily be hurt. Truth seekers need to examine data honestly while acknowledging that not everyone in a category is average. Certainly many children from other family types turn out quite well.
What is the correct composition of the other group—children of same-sex parents? It is not a simple decision. For example, do we count children who were conceived by biological parents who divorced, after which one, or both, had a same-sex relationship? Regnerus’ comparison group was children for whom either parent had a same-sex relationship at any time. Thus, the comparison was between children raised in the family structure that (on average) fares best in virtually every study vs. children raised in several different situations. Given the comparison, the general findings are not surprising.
This was not the first study with less-than-optimal comparisons. Loren Marks from LSU has documented the flaws in studies which have found either no differences, or advantages, to same-sex parenting. For example, comparing children of upper-income lesbian couples and heterosexual single mothers is not a fair comparison. The Regnerus study is the latest in a long line of studies examining children of same-sex parents which used less than optimal comparisons. The Regnerus study does have a better approach to sampling from the population than many previous studies. It should be viewed as an imperfect addition to an important research and social conversation.
One of Marks’ conclusions in his review is that when new issues begin to be addressed by researchers, “it takes time, often several decades, before many of the central and most relevant questions can be adequately addressed.” It makes sense that children raised by new family structures would differ from those raised by two biological parents. These differences could be either meaningful or trivial. I believe that with time and additional study these differences and the nuances surrounding them will become clearer if the research community is free to honestly pursue the truth. It seems that many on both sides of the issue are not interested in honestly pursuing truth.
However, those of us who value traditional morality must always consider the real-life alternatives when evaluating future research. Suppose that there is increasing evidence that children raised by same-sex parents are at increased risk for some negative outcomes compared to an appropriate comparison group. What should moral traditionalists conclude if the choice was between some children being adopted by same-sex couples or being in the foster-care system? The scientific and moral issues are complex. They need to be addressed honestly without claims of scientific misconduct whenever a researcher reaches conclusions that some do not like. Similarly, imperfect studies should not be championed as the final word by people longing to justify their moral beliefs with science. How about an honest pursuit of truth?