Same-Sex Parenting – No Differences?

Last year, when I published my article on same-sex marriage, commenters asserted that the academic literature suggested children with gay or lesbian parenting situations did just as well as those with heterosexual parents. As I looked into it, even as a non-specialist, I could note that many such studies displayed methodological weaknesses such as the lack of control groups, or self-selection and self-reporting by participants. This should have cautioned against such dogmatic conclusions.

As the wider debate continues, I draw readers’ attention to two studies published in the journal Social Science Research. In these papers, researchers from secular American universities have raised questions over the accuracy of the often repeated claim that there are no differences in outcomes between children raised in same-sex parent households and those of intact biological families.

In his study, Mark Regnerus, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, used data from the New Family Structures Study, a large nationally representative sample of just under 3,000 young Americans aged 18 to 39, to compare how children raised in eight different family structures fared on 40 social, emotional, and relationship outcomes.

According to his findings, children of mothers who have had same-sex relationships were significantly different as young adults on 25 of 40 outcome measures, compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both their married, biological parents. For example, they reported:

  • significantly lower levels of income,
  • more receipt of public welfare,
  • lower levels of employment,
  • poorer mental and physical health,
  • poorer relationship quality with current partner, and
  • higher levels of smoking and criminality.

Prof Regnerus says,

This study, based on a rare large probability sample, reveals far greater diversity in the experience of lesbian motherhood (and to a lesser extent, gay fatherhood) than has been previously acknowledged or understood. […] The most significant story in this study is arguably that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.

A second review article of existing studies comes from Dr Loren Marks, Associate Professor, School of Human Ecology, Louisiana State University. Dr Marks reviewed studies published between 1980 and 2005 cited by the 2005 official brief on same-sex parenting by the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA asserted that: “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.”

By contrast, Dr Marks finds that much of the research that formed the basis for this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief, more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples that did not include any minority individuals or families; nearly half lacked a heterosexual comparison group; and few examined outcomes that extend beyond childhood such as intergenerational poverty, educational attainment, and criminality, which are a key focus of studies on children of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation. Dr Marks concludes that a lack of high quality data leaves significant questions unaddressed and unanswered.

This same current edition of Social Science Research (41/4, July 2012) also publishes three responses to these two studies from other American academics, along with a rejoinder from each original author. So people for themselves can judge the merits of the evidence adduced and the inferences made by the various academics. I was able to download PDFs of all 7 papers from this link page for the journal.

It is important for Christians and others interested in the debates about same-sex marriage and adoption to observe due caution in drawing conclusions from these studies.

For example, Dr Marks says,

The jury is still out on whether being raised by same-sex parents disadvantages children […] However, the available data on which the APA draws its conclusions, derived primarily from small convenience samples, are insufficient to support a strong generalized claim either way.

And Prof Regnerus notes that his study does not address why the differences exist (the old ‘correlation does not prove causation’ issue). Nor does it predict if more accepting attitudes to same-sex relationships will mean children growing up today with same-sex parents might one day fare better in similar analysis.

Prof Regnerus added,

Nor does the study tell us that same-sex parents are necessarily bad parents […] Rather, family forms that are associated with instability or non-biological parents tend to pose risks for children as they age into adulthood.

Interestingly, this finding is consistent with the Australian research and policy paper, published in July 2011, entitled “For Kids’ Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People” (PDF link) by Patrick Parkinson, Professor of Law at the University of Sydney. Parkinson’s paper reviews current research into the broad area of child welfare. Parkinson says,

In the last twenty years or so, the dominant policy direction has been to treat all families alike without reference to family structure. Yet the overwhelming evidence from research is that children do best in two-parent married families, and this is not just the result of selection effects.

Children will be raised in a variety of family situations for all sorts of reasons. Each child should be loved and supported, not only by parents, but more broadly by the wider community without prejudice.

But I believe Christians can in good conscience be confident in continuing to think that wherever possible, children ought to be given the chance to be raised by their biological parents in intact marriages. It is in the best interests of children that social policy reflects this preference.




16 thoughts on “Same-Sex Parenting – No Differences?

  1. The reliable data available indicates that homosexual relationships experience higher levels of violence and unfaithfulness. A huge effort is made to conceal this reality from the public. I recently argued that while I believe that those who want gay marriage should be free to make a case for why they want the same rights that come with heterosexual marriage. Yet they should also respectfully acknowledge that (to accommodate their sexual preferences), they’re asking the majority for significant changes to the way things have been for centuries.

    I am not suggesting that history trumps all arguments, but it’s no small matter to demand a change to the institution of marriage from the Creator’s design for male and female. A greater burden of defense is on those asking for such a change. They must make a case for why it is in the best interest of society to expand the definition of marriage (not just for 2-3 percent of society). And those making this request must not disrespect other voices at the table. Labeling opponents as hateful and homophobic is childish, manipulative behavior.

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  3. Does society have the right to decide, on the basis of any amount of peer-reviewed studies, that children are not entitled to a father and a mother?

    Doesn’t every human being have a fundamental, natural right to be created by a mother and a father and to start life with a mother and father?

    I submit that artificially creating children, with the premeditated intent to deny them a mother and a father, is extreme child abuse. Surrogates and physicians should be forbidden to assist in the artificial creation of children unless presented with a sworn, registered consent by a man and a woman who legally bind themselves to be the parents of the child.

    Mark Adams Brown
    San Angelo, Texas
    June 14, 2012

  4. Mark, Steve, thank you for your comments.

    While the primary aim of this particular blog was to bring some current research to people’s attention, I am entirely in agreement that we should oppose any redefinition at law regarding marriage (which in God’s eyes and in reality we cannot truly change).

    I also agree that to deliberately conceive children with the intention of denying them a biological father or mother is wrong (at least in any circumstances I can conceive).

  5. Upon further reflection, I can see that the conclusion to my article here may have implied that it’s mainly because of the research, that “I believe Christians can in good conscience be confident in continuing to think that wherever possible, children ought to be given the chance to be raised by their biological parents in intact marriages.”

    I’d like to make it clear that of course I believe that to be the case because the Scriptures teach, right from Genesis 1 and 2, that children ought to be brought into being by having a father and mother in a one-flesh relationship, which the rest of the Bible makes it clear is the best place for them to be raised.

    The aim of my article is to help Christian not to be brow-beaten by the often repeated claim that studies have proved children raised in same-sex parenting situations do just as well. That is not a finding proved beyond all doubt.

    And leaving that particular minority style of family situation aside, there is very good evidence to back to positive claim that children typically do best when raised in an intact family with their biological mother and father.

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  7. Let’s be clear Sandy, the Regnerus study doesn’t even pretend to provide a valid comparison of the outcomes for children from same sex parents with those with opposite sex parents. No attempt was made to match the comparison groups in order to control for the most significant variables that we know effect outcomes for children.

    In fact, the study actually compares outcomes between young adults who answered affirmatively to the question: “From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?” with young adults from “biologically (still) intact, mother–father families”. Of the former group only 40 respondents (23%) had lived with the parent’s same sex partner for more than 3 years (and then for an unspecified period)!

    You don’t have to be an expert, Sandy, to see that you can’t draw valid general conclusions about the relative outcomes of same sex and opposite sex parenting from a comparison of these groups.

    Regnerus, himself, has now admitted that this is a significant methodological flaw:

    “One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–a limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable.”

    This study does nothing to counter the conclusions – or as you say, raise ‘questions over the accuracy’ – of the major reviews of this literature which is that there is no evidence that, ceteris paribus, children of same sex parents do worse than those with opposite sex parents.

  8. It’s probably worth noting that the Parkinson report did not consider the issue of same sex parenting and the only conclusions that could be drawn from it relative to that issue can only be implied in an indirect kind of way.

    Isn’t the subtext to all this the suggestion that allowing same sex couples to label their relationships ‘marriage’ and let them get a piece of paper with ‘marriage’ on it will lead to the end of society as we know it in part because all the little kiddies will become gay?

    To that suggestion I would rely upon the Parkinson report that did not actually mention same sex marriage as a problem for families or children. Rather a whole lot of other things, with nothing to do with the labelling of relationships, and definitely no mention of religious beliefs.

    Iteresting to see Sandy writing against the formation of dogmatic principles from minimal evidence. Thin ice for the theologian.

  9. I think [one of] the big concerns is that legalizing ssm creates a context in which the teaching of children in school that homosexual behaviour is right, normal – healthy – is very hard to resist. This seems to have been the result in places such as Ontario, Canada – to think of one example off the top of my head [without researching it in detail].

    That is, if we’re having sex-ed, and relationship education in schools, then it may be a trivially easy step for it to be a lawful requirement that teachers instruct children [still too young to understand the significance of it all] that homosexual behaviour is a valid and healthy option [since it’s the law of the land].

    This can impact Christians [and other people who view homosexual behaviour as immoral] at a number of levels. If they’re teachers and it becomes part of the curriculum, then objecting to teaching it could place them in a situation of having to disobey their employer – perhaps losing their jobs. Anywhere that people have to disseminate health information as part of their employment can come under great pressure to say that homosexual behaviour is right and good.

    For Christians, this is tantamount to being required to lie.

    And of course – the question is – for what reason is this being promoted? For what? So grown adults can use a particular word to describe their relationship?

    We [potentially] create a situation where it becomes possible to threaten thousands of people on account of their moral views – perhaps putting them in peril of their livelihoods so that a tiny majority of the population can use a particular word to describe their relationship – but which changes nothing about the facts of their relationship. Gay men and women can right now in Australia, live as they wish and I don’t think any organised group in Australia is seriously trying to stop them [except perhaps by persuasion].

    But by legalising SSM, you create a situation in which it suddenly becomes trivially easy to put enormous pressure [by the power of the state] on a great many people in our society to affirm as right and good that which they cannot in good conscience affirm as right and good.

    This is something that will cause all sorts of problems, since there are multitudes of teachers for which this is an ethical problem. I think of teachers off the top of my head, but I’m sure that there are an abundant number of jobs where similar issues could arise.

    Furthermore [and this increases the moral objection] – Children who are too young to understand the idea of sex can become very confused and may be told they’re gay – on account of [for example] their loving their best friend or similar. I am aware of sex-ed material in the UK – prepared for very young children – that has been known to have this effect. It is one thing to have this kind of debate in a university campus where we’re all grown-ups. But to start messing with the minds of small children is deeply objectionable – especially if the power of the state is used to override the wishes and views of the parents.

    Therefore the reason that this is such a big issue for Christians [and others] is that it appears to be an attempt to use the power of the state to force people to affirm behaviour which they believe is immoral.

    The question has been raised “how does allowing SSM affect your hetrosexual marriage”? The answer is: It creates an environment where it becomes trivially easy to attack the way I teach my children about morals [through official curriculum in schools and the like], and creates an environment in which anyone who works with children for a living comes under pressure to teach as a positive thing, behaviour that they believe to be immoral.

  10. Hi David,

    Undoubtedly the pendulum is swinging in favour of a previously marginalised group whose sexual behaviour was for a long time the subject of criminal sanction in Australia.

    But it seems a little despairing to attempt to link the inertia of the swing of that pendulum to same sex marriage. The conduct that underpins same sex marriage is homosexuality. Homosexual behaviour once was unlawful. Not any more. The subtext of opposing same sex marriage if you follow it to its logical extreme appears to be a desire to re-criminalize it. But too late, the church didn’t oppose decriminalizing homosexuality. The battle is over.

    I think it is a long bow to draw, the usual slippery slope argument, to attempt to link same sex marriage to the outcomes you suggest. Those outcomes, which I note are speculative in any event, flow fundamentally things like the de-criminalizing of homosexuality, the general appropriation and application of anti-discrimination laws in the Commonwealth, and the rise of secularism. Those things reflect the inexorable tide of historical inertia. It is already trivially easy to pressure people to choose their words carefully about minority groups of all kinds. It is hard to see that same sex marriage will do anything more at all.

    As an aside, the principle you seem to suggest should apply is that a minority group should be able to use the laws of the secular state to enforce particular rules based upon their religious beliefs upon others who do not accept those beliefs. Funnily enough you suggest that the other side cannot do the same to the minority. This view seems to ignore the reality of the legal and political system in which we exist. It is a secular democracy, like it or not, where the majority rules.

    Such a view I would suggest ultimately would be counterproductive to Christians. The majority may decide to make Christianity illegal, and if Christians accept that religious/moral codes can be imposed by the use of state laws, they could hardly complain about the result.

    It would probably be better to accept that the church and the state are separate after all. The authority of the church is limited in the current environment. Other mechanisms than highlighting sexual orientation surely exist to promote a Christian agenda.

  11. Brian, Tom, David, thanks for commenting. No time to comment at any length right now. However, Christian Concern gives some examples, which they suggest numbers in the 100s, of what David was mentioning in Canada. The article also mentions the example in Denmark where every single church in the established church in that country is being forced to host same-sex weddings.

  12. I think the outcomes referred to by Christian Concern regarding Canada and Denmark demonstrate clearly the difficulty of relying on examples in different legal jurisdictions to demonstrate any particular point to a degree of certainty.

    It would not be common in the legal context to attempt such a use of out-of-jurisdiction precedent, simply because of the difficulty of doing so in a way that was of any use. It is a little hard to compare different legal jurisdictions, in which the laws are substantially different in so many ways.

    I am not sure why in a theological context one would attempt to depart from what should be regarded as the most appropriate way to approach that kind of precedent. Other than of course the need to find something to support the case, because there is really nothing better.

    The Denmark Church data that you refer to Sandy is a particularly poor comparison. The Church is an instrument of the State in that jurisdiction, to the extent of being financially supported by it. It could hardly be seen to compare in anyway to the Australian dynamic.

    Further and I note my research is limited to Wikipedia, there appears no hint of force being used in Denmark. The State has ultimate authority over the church, and makes the rules. I think unless Wiki is wrong, that may be an overstatement.

    Anyway, we’ve all just got onto our pet hobby-horses and galloped off, to nowhere again.

  13. I am not a lawyer, but from my laymans perspective, the Canadian jurisdiction has a very similar legal system to our own and is therefore a good example of how these kinds of legal changes can tend to play out on the ground – especially when driven by well funded and ideologically committed protagonists.

    • Hi David,

      The general conclusion we are asked to accept is that legalising same-sex marriage will result in some kind of new and definite legal detriment in Australia to religious opponents of homosexual behaviour.

      Apparently it is not possible to articulate that opposition on strictly theological grounds. Presumably that would make opposition to a secular marriage ceremony redundant. So to make the issue relevant, the detriment of same-sex marriage is being articulated on a secular basis. It will lead to the ruination of our children, the end of marriage, social decline etc.

      The Canadian Catholic bishop who ran into problems made clear from a Catholic Church view, it is homosexuality itself that is the problem, not the labelling of their relationships as marriage. This is logically the case for opponents of same-sex marriage, even though some pretend that this is not their position.

      The point to consider is that already on the books in Australia, there exist a range of laws relating to equal opportunity, anti-discrimination, defamation and hate crimes that can be used to oppose careless arguments directly against homosexuality or the conduct of same sex people.

      Further there exist contractual obligations that could affect employees who leave the bounds of their employment to pursue a religious agenda against any particular group. Like a McDonald’s employee who decides they won’t serve Muslims, or Catholics, or whoever, because they believe on religious grounds that they are ‘evil and will bring society to ruin’.

      Arguments directly against homosexuality because of the existing laws etc would have to be carefully crafted. Certainly better than ‘homosexuality should be made a crime, it is evil, it is ruining society’.

      The critical point is that the primary laws and other obligations restricting opposition of the conduct of homosexuals already exist. Legalizing same-sex marriage will make no obvious difference to this state. Unless you are happy with some kind of loose, rubbery, slippery slope argument that accepts a number of unprovable suppositions like that the certain consequence of legalizing same-sex marriage will be the outlawing of Christianity, or the end of the world. Crying wolf really suggests the lack of any better position.

      Whether a lay person or not, as a rule one should be careful in drawing general conclusions on limited information in a specialist field. There is nothing in the Canadian examples that unequivocally indicate a link between the legalising of same-sex marriage and the various legal constraints on opposing the legal conduct of particular classes of person. This is so notwithstanding the clear implication by the likes of Christian Concern to the contrary.

      I seriously doubt an Australian court would be paying attention to what happened to a Canadian bishop, given the differences in the laws between two countries. Such differences are far more significant from a legal perspective than superficial similarities in legal systems.

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