Don’t Let Criticism of the New Gay Parents Study Become a War on Science

Science, technology, and life.
June 14 2012 10:49 AM

A Liberal War on Science?

Don’t bury Mark Regnerus’ study of gay parents. Learn what it can teach the left and right.

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Here’s Regnerus in Slate:

One notable theme among the adult children of same-sex parents, however, is household instability, and plenty of it. … While we know that good things tend to happen—both in the short-term and over the long run—when people provide households that last, parents in the [study] who had same-sex relationships were the least likely to exhibit such stability.

And here he is in Patheos:

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[O]nly two respondents total said they lived with their mother and her [lesbian] partner nonstop from birth to age 18. Two more said they did so for 15 years, and two more for 13 years. To be sure, these 10 fared better on more outcomes than did their less-stable peers. They’re just uncommon, and too small a group to detect statistically-significant differences, for sure.

The numbers don’t add up, and the subset is too small to generalize, but you get the picture: Kids of gay parents, like kids of straight parents, did better in stabler families. And this fits the pattern of all those studies the gay-rights groups are citing against Regnerus: Children raised by committed, financially secure gay couples turn out fine.

This is where Regnerus made his second mistake: He pitted his study against prior studies that found happier outcomes in gay families. He attributes his findings to “better methods.” But there’s no contradiction between his study and the others. The prior studies simply targeted and featured the stablest, most educated gay couples. They were too narrow. Regnerus, by using the “did your parent ever have a gay relationship” question, captured all the messed-up families that had been left out. But his net was too broad: It yielded a sample dominated by kids who had scarcely lived in a same-sex household.

Arguing over whether to believe Regnerus’ data or the other studies is like arguing over whether to examine your neighbor through a microscope or a space-based telescope. Each view captures what the other can’t see. But ultimately, you’re looking at the same thing. The telescopic view shows gay parents in unstable households failing. The microscopic view shows gay parents in stable households succeeding. Stability, not orientation, is the story.

That’s where this debate is going, scientifically and politically. You can see it in Regnerus’ comment to CBS News: "People gay or straight should stick with their partners. I think the study provides evidence of that." You can see it in a candid assessment by National Review editorial associate Charles C. W. Cooke: “Given the way the study is set up, one could fairly ask whether this is not so much an analysis of homosexual parenting versus heterosexual parenting, but of childhood stability versus instability.” You can see it in the concession of Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center: “It might well be that the children who would otherwise be raised by unmarried same-sex couples would fare better if those couples could and would marry.”

Shifting the conversation from orientation to stability doesn’t end the debate. But it does break the logjam. It frees us from dissent-silencing appeals to authority, such as the Bible or policy statements from the American Psychological Association. It opens social conservatives to the possibility of accepting gay marriage, since, as Regnerus points out, “whether some relationship arrangements are more systematically prone to disorganization than others” is an “empirically testable question.” By the same token, it challenges homosexuals to deliver. The Regnerus study shows how wretchedly unstable the households of most gay parents were in the years when gay sex and gay marriage were illegal. We have a chance now to do better. Don’t let the experiment fail.

That’s why we should take this study seriously. It tells both sides, including its author and its funders, difficult truths they need to hear. Family stability matters. And when same-sex couples are permitted, encouraged, and determined to provide that stability, kids do better. The left’s enlightenment about sexual orientation can be married to the right’s wisdom about family values. It won’t be easy. But it’s worth the effort.

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