Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Mark Regnerus, Loren Marks, and the Inconclusive Research on Same-Sex Parenting

In the summer of 2012, Social Science Research published two articles--one by Loren Marks and the other by Mark Regnerus--on the social scientific study of same-sex parenting.  They challenged the prevalent claim among academic scholars that there is "no difference" in the outcomes for children when one compares heterosexual parenting and same-sex parenting.  On the contrary, they argued, those studies supporting the "no differences" conclusion are rendered unreliable by their fundamental methodological flaws.  And, in fact, the analysis of new data gathered by Regnerus's New Families Structures Study (NFSS) was said to support the conclusion that children who have been raised in two-parent heterosexual married households tend to be on average physically, mentally, and socially better off as young adults than those children who have been raised by lesbian mothers or gay fathers.  The NFSS study also adds support to the copious research showing that two-parent heterosexual married households tend to have better outcomes for children as compared with adoptive families, divorced families, single parent families, and stepfamilies.

The day after the publication of these articles, they were being cited in amicus curiae briefs from conservative organizations opposing the legalization of same-sex marriages.  On the other side of the debate, proponents of same-sex marriage insisted that Regnerus's research was ruined by methodological mistakes, deception, and personal bias.  This set off one of the most intense public controversies in the recent history of social scientific research.  This debate continued in the amicus curiae briefs in the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, in which same-sex marriage was declared a constitutional right by a 5-4 decision.

Ultimately, this is a debate over the biological nature of marriage and parenting--over how families should be structured to satisfy the natural human inclinations to sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental care.

If one reads this research carefully, I suggest, one can see that neither side in this debate has made a conclusive empirical argument for its position.  Remarkably, both sides admit to the methodological flaws in their research that are criticized by the other side.  In principle, both sides are making falsifiable predictions that can be tested by empirical research.  But in practice, they face an intractable problem--that we have had so little experience with legalized same-sex marriages and parenting that there is not yet enough evidence for research to resolve the debate.  We might need 15 to 25 years of experience with married same-sex parenting before we can decide conclusively--by common observation or by scientific study--whether same-sex parenting is good for children.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association published a summary of the research findings on same-sex parenting authored by Charlotte J. Patterson.  She concluded: "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" (15).  This APA report--particularly the "not a single study" conclusion--has been the most often cited publication for the "no difference" position.  Slightly revised versions of this report have been filed by the APA as amicus curiae briefs in the court cases on same-sex marriage.

In his 2012 article, Marks examines that report and the 59 published studies it cites.  He shows that almost all of this research is methodologically defective in two ways: it relies on small samples that are not representative of the diverse population of lesbian and gay parents, and it does not compare lesbian and gay parenting with heterosexual parenting in stable intact marriage-based families.  Most often, small samples of white, urban, rich, highly educated, and middle-class or upper-class lesbian parents were compared with heterosexual single mothers.  Researchers employed "snowball" or convenience samples: for example, the researchers might post notices in lesbian newspapers or at lesbian meeting places inviting people to participate in a survey of lesbian parenting practices, which recruited people who were often biased towards reporting good outcomes for lesbian parents.  Moreover, these surveys of lesbian mothers never surveyed those young adults who had been raised by these mothers to allow the children to report their experiences.

This is not an accurate sampling of same-sex parenting, because such advantaged lesbian mothers can create unusually good environments for their children in a way that is not true for lesbian mothers and gay fathers who are not in such advantaged positions.  And it is not a fair comparison to compare advantaged lesbian mothers with heterosexual single mothers with all of the disadvantages of never married or divorced mothers.  None of the studies cited in the APA report compared children raised by two-parent same-sex couples in stable households with children raised by two-parent heterosexual couples in stable households.

As Marks (2012, 748, n. 91) indicates, the APA report admits that these criticisms are valid (Patterson 2005, 5-6).  But then, instead of throwing out all of the research reports that are open to these criticisms, Patterson reassures us that improvements are being made!

Marks also notes that there is at least one exception to the APA's claim 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." Studying some children in Australia, Sotirios Sarantakos concluded that "children of married couples are more likely to do well at school in academic and social terms, than children of cohabiting and homosexual couples" (1996, 24).  His study was a comparative analysis of 58 children of heterosexual married parents, 58 children of heterosexual cohabiting couples, and 58 children of homosexual couples, who were all matched in social conditions such as age, number of children, education, occupation, and socio-economic status.

The APA report dismissed this study with three criticisms.  The first was that "nearly all indicators of the children's functioning were based on subjective reports by teachers," and Sarantakos himself noted that teachers were often biased (Patterson 2005, 6, n. 1).  But Marks observes that Sarantakos also used other indicators of the children's success in school, including tests and observations (Marks 2012, 742).  He praises Sarantakos for modeling the "research ideal of triangulation of sources"--using multiple data sources, multiple methods, and multiple theoretical perspectives, so that one has a means for checking one's inferences (742-43).  (Notice that, as I have indicated in my previous post, Regnerus' reliance solely on a self-reporting internet survey falls short of this research ideal of triangulation.)

Marks is silent, however, about the two other criticisms of Sarantakos' study.  The children of the same-sex parents were socially ostracized in school.  And most of the children of same-sex parents had experienced parental divorce.  So, it could have been these factors--rather than same-sex parenting per se--that impeded the children's success in school.

Marks' critique of the APA report set the stage for Regnerus to present his NFSS research as both methodologically superior to research like the APA report and as overturning the "no differences" doctrine in showing that married heterosexual families with two biological parents really is best for children.

The NFSS fielded "a survey to a large, random sample of American young adults (ages 18-39) who were raised in different types of family arrangements" (Regnerus 2012a, 752).  2988 young adults completed full surveys on the internet through Knowledge Networks.  Based upon their answers to questions about their family life during their childhood, they were placed in one of eight categories of family structure.  They were then asked a series of questions about their lives that allowed inferences about how well they fared on 40 different social, emotional, and relational outcome variables.  This supported Regnerus' conclusion that the children of still-married heterosexual biological parents tended to live better lives as young adults than did the children with homosexual parents--and also better than children from other kinds of families.

At the "New Family Structures" website, there is a helpful visual presentation of the statistical comparisons of the outcomes for children of the different family types.  There are statistically significant differences in which "intact biological families" (IBF) tend to produce better outcomes for children than do "lesbian mother" (LM) families or "gay father" (GF) families.  For example, children from IBF families tend to show higher levels of education, lower levels of suicidal thoughts, lower levels of depression, less likelihood of being arrested, less likelihood of pleading guilty to a non-minor offense, less likelihood of being unemployed, less likelihood to be in psychological therapy, and less likelihood of being on public assistance.  For most of these factors, IBF is also superior in good outcomes for children as compared with other family structures--adoptive families, divorced families, single parent families, and stepfamilies.

It should be emphasized, however, that these are only differences on average in the risks for children in different family structures.  The great majority of children become healthy and happy young adults regardless of their family histories.  Regnerus stresses this: "most young-adult respondents in the NFSS report ample success and largely avoid problematic physical and emotional difficulties, regardless of their parents' experiences, decisions, and actions" (2012b, 1377).  This suggests that even family structures that are not the best for children on average might be good enough for most children.

Everything about Regnerus's study depends on his classification of family structures into eight categories.  Here is how he does it, including the sample size of respondents in his internet survey for each category (2012a, 757-58):
1.  IBF: Lived in intact biological family (with mother and father) from 0 to 18, and parents are still married at present (N = 919).
2.  LM: R reported R's mother had a same-sex romantic (lesbian) relationship with a woman, regardless of any other household transitions (N = 163).
3.  GF: R reported R's father had a same-sex romantic (gay) relationship with a man, regardless of any other household transitions (N = 73).
4.  Adopted: R was adopted by one or two strangers at birth or before age 2 (N = 101).
5.  Divorced later or had joint custody: R reported living with biological mother and father from birth to age 18, but parents are not married at present (N = 116).
6.  Stepfamily: Biological parents were either never married or else divorced, and R's primary custodial parent was married to someone else before R turned 18 (N = 394).
7.  Single parent: Biological parents were either never married or else divorced, and R's primary custodial parent did not marry (or remarry) before R turned 18 (N = 816).
8.  All others: Includes all other family structure/event combinations, such as respondents with a deceased parent (N = 406).
If Regnerus is studying young adults "who were raised in different types of family arrangements" [my emphasis added] (752), why does he exclude from IBF those children who were raised in an intact biological family from 0 to 18, but whose parents divorced some time after the children left home?  One possible explanation for this, is that Regnerus was worried that IBF would not look so good if it included #5--"divorced later."  Parents who divorced later may have had an unhappy marriage, but they decided to remain married until the children were raised and out of the house.  Their unhappy marriage might have created tensions in the household that affected the children.  If this is so, Regnerus' classification here overstates the positive effects of being reared by both biological parents for 18 years.

Here is how Regnerus summarizes his comparisons:
"To summarize, then, in 25 of 40 outcomes, there are simple statistically-significant differences between IBFs and LMs, those whose mothers had a same-sex relationship.  After controls, there are 24 such differences.  There are 24 simple differences between IBFs and stepfamilies, and 24 statistically-significant differences after controls.  Among single (heterosexual) parents, there are 25 simple differences before controls and 21 after controls.  Between GFs and IBFs, there are 11 and 19 such differences, respectively" (764).
Regnerus does not mention here that "divorced later" shows 16 simple differences and 20 differences after controls.  So, clearly, if "divorced later" had been included in IBF, then IBF would not have looked so good.  And notice that the children of gay fathers were actually a little better off by Regnerus' standards than those children who had been reared by both biological parents for 18 years, who then saw their parents divorce after the children had left home.

Another odd feature of Regnerus' classification is that while he claims to be studying the raising of children by lesbian mothers or gay fathers, most of those respondents whom he puts into the LM or GF categories spent little or no time as children being reared in a gay or lesbian household.

Notice also that those respondents who said that they had been reared in an IBF were not asked whether one or both of their parents had ever had a same-sex "romantic relationship."  Regnerus seems to assume that an IBF cannot also be a LM or GF.  Why not?  If it is possible that some of the IBFs were also LMs or GFs, that would subvert his classification and the conclusions he wants to make.

Finally, and most importantly, why doesn't Regnerus' classification scheme include something like IFSSP: Lived in intact family with same-sex parents from 0 to 18?  The most common criticism of Regnerus is that, as William Saletan put it, "the study doesn't document the failure of same-sex marriage.  It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage."  "What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people.  But that finding isn't meaningless.  It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights."  "Kids do better when they have two committed parents, a biological connection, and a stable home.  If that's good advice for straights, it's good advice for gays, too."  We might argue then that this study shows the need for same-sex marriage to promote the commitment of same-sex couples in providing a stable home for their children.

Regnerus writes: "Future studies would optimally include a more significant share of children from planned gay families, although their relative scarcity in the NFSS suggests that their appearance in even much larger probability samples will remain infrequent for the foreseeable future.  The NFSS, despite significant efforts to randomly over-sample such populations, nevertheless was more apt to survey children whose parents exhibited gay and lesbian relationship behavior after being in a heterosexual union. This pattern may remain more common today than many scholars suppose" (2012a, 765).  So here he recognizes the limitation of his study that has been stressed by the critics.

Regnerus also says that his study "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" (755).

This indicates why I think the scientific debate over whether same-sex marriage and parenting is good or bad for children cannot at present be settled by conclusive evidence.  The legalization of same-sex marriage has occurred only in recent years, and it will be many years before we can see outcomes for children in same-sex married households.

Regnerus' argument, however, is that we do already have plenty of evidence that gay males and lesbian women are much less inclined than are heterosexual individuals to stable, enduring relationships with their sexual partners and to forming stable homes for children.  Most gays and lesbians have little interest in same-sex marriage and even less interest in same-sex parenting.  Regnerus' prediction, therefore, after the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, was that after a few years of rising same-sex marriages, gays and lesbians will discover that this does not work for them, and same-sex marriage and parenting will decline.

By contrast, the proponents of same-sex marriage must predict that its legalization will allow gays and lesbians to satisfy their natural desires for conjugal bonding and parental care by committing themselves to marriage and parenting, and that their children will do at least as well on average as most children of heterosexual parents.

In 15-25 years, we will be able--through common observation and scientific study--to decide which prediction has been verified.

Marks, Loren. 2012. "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: 735-751.

Patterson, Charlotte J. 2005. Lesbian & Gay Parenting. Washington, DC: American Psychological Associastion.

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

Regnerus, Mark. 2012b. "Parental Same-Sex Relationships, Family Instability, and Subsequent Life Outcomes for Adult Children: Answering Critics of the New Family Structures Study with Additional Analyses." Social Science Research 41: 1367-1377.

Saletan, William. 2012. "New Family Structures Study: Is Gay Parenthood Bad?  Or is Gay Marriage Good?" June 12.


Unknown said...

I know Loren Marks personally and have read the research myself. It is some great stuff! I would like to point out though that Loren Marks is a man, not a woman. I was very confused when you used feminine pronouns when referring to him, but I supposed that the name "Loren" can be used for either gender. Just thought you would like to know!

Larry Arnhart said...

Thank you for pointing out my mistake. I have corrected this.