Sociologists Slam Regnerus Study in Amicus Brief

As we’ve noted, anti-gay activists and conservative Christian groups continue to use the “family structures study” by Mark Regnerus as a weapon in their battle against marriage equality, most recently in Illinois this week. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is among several groups that cite the study in briefs before the Supreme Court. The justices are getting a very different take on the study from the American Sociological Association, which filed an amicus brief in the Defense of Marriage Act case. It takes a persuasive whack at the Regnerus study and the way it is being used. Here’s the conclusion:

If any conclusion can be reached from Regnerus’ study, it is that family stability is predictive of child well-being. As Regnerus himself notes, family structure (for instance whether the family has a single parent or two parents), matters significantly to child outcomes. As the social science consensus described in Part I demonstrates, the evidence regarding children raised by same-sex parents overwhelmingly indicates that children raised by such families fare just as well as children raised by opposite-sex parents, and that children raised by same-sex parents are likely to benefit from the enhanced stability the institution of marriage would provide to their parents and families. All told, the Regnerus study, even as revised, does not undermine the consensus that children raised by same-sex parents fare just as well as those raised by opposite-sex parents.

And here’s some more detailed critique of the Regnerus study, which is addressed on pages 15-22 of the brief.

First, the Regnerus study does not specifically examine children born or adopted into same-sex parent families, but instead examines children who, from the time they were born until they were 18 or moved out, had a parent who at any time had “a same-sex romantic relationship.” As Regnerus noted, the majority of the individuals characterized by him as children of “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” were the offspring of failed opposite-sex unions whose parent subsequently had a same-sex relationship. In other words, Regnerus did not study or analyze the children of two same-sex parents.

Second, when the Regnerus study compared the children of parents who at one point had a “same-sex romantic relationship,” most of whom had experienced a family dissolution or single motherhood, to children raised by two biological, married opposite-sex parents, the study stripped away all divorced, single, and step-parent families from the opposite-sex group, leaving only stable, married, opposite-sex families as the comparison… Thus, it was hardly surprising that the opposite-sex group had better outcomes given that stability is a key predictor of positive child well-being. By so doing, the Regnerus study makes inappropriate apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Third, Regnerus’ first published analysis of his research data failed to consider whether the children lived with, or were raised by, the parent who was, at some point, apparently involved in “a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex” and that same-sex partner. Instead, Regnerus categorized children as raised by a parent in a same-sex romantic relationship regardless of whether they were in fact raised by the parent and the parent’s same-sex romantic partner and regardless of the amount of time that they spent under the parent’s care. As a result, so long as an adult child believed that he or she had had a parent who had a relationship with someone of the same sex, then he or she was counted by Regnerus as having been “raised by” a parent in a same-sex relationship.

Fourth, in contrast to every other study on same-sex parenting, Regnerus identified parents who had purportedly engaged in a same-sex romantic relationship based solely on the child’s own retrospective report of the parent’s romantic relationships, made once the child was an adult. This unusual measurement strategy ignored the fact that the child may have limited and inaccurate recollections of the parents’ distant romantic past.

Finally, the study fails to account for the fact that the negative outcomes may have been caused by other childhood events or events later in the individual’s adult life, particularly given that the vast majority (thirty-seven of forty) of the outcomes measured were adult and not childhood outcomes. Factors other than same-sex parenting are likely to explain these negative outcomes in the Regnerus study. Regnerus himself concludes that “I am thus not suggesting that growing up with a lesbian mother or gay father causes suboptimal outcomes because of the sexual orientation or sexual behavior of the parent.”

In sum, by conflating (1) children raised by same-sex parents with (2) individuals who reportedly had a parent who had “a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex,” and referring to such individuals as children of “lesbian mothers” or “gay fathers,” the Regnerus study obscures the fact that it did not specifically examine children raised by two same-sex parents. Accordingly, it cannot speak to the impact of same-sex parenting on child outcomes.

Peter Montgomery, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches, is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation where he was on staff for 15 years. Before that he was associate director of grassroots lobbying for Common Cause and wrote for Common Cause Magazine, an award-winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.