by Brandon McGinley

Two groundbreaking papers were published yesterday in the journal Social Science Research which strongly indicate what common sense dictates: that children fare best in households with their married, biological mother and father—including when compared to children who lived with parents in same-sex relationships.  In his paper, Loren Marks of the Louisiana State University demonstrates that all 59 research papers on which the American Psychological Association (APA) based its glowing 2005 statement on same-sex parenting contained scientific flaws, and that the APA’s statement lacks even minimal basis in science.  Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas follows up by introducing a new data set, the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), which is considered the finest in the field and which indicates that children raised with parents in same-sex relationships fare significantly worse on a wide variety of outcome metrics.

In 2005, the APA declared—in a statement authored by a single activist psychologist—that:

…there is no evidence to suggest that…psychosocial development among children of lesbian women and gay men is compromised relative to that among offspring of heterosexual parents.  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.

Prof. Marks demonstrates that all of the studies on which this statement is based are significantly flawed.  For instance, none of the 59 studies focused on racial or ethnic minorities, and few studied any such minorities at all.  Furthermore, samples were consistently skewed toward economically and socially privileged families.  As Marks puts it: “By their own reports, social researchers examining same-sex parenting have repeatedly selected small, non-representative, homogenous samples of privileged lesbian mothers to represent all same-sex parents.”  He goes on to demonstrate more flaws from the studies, from the glaring (no or skewed heterosexual control group) to the more esoteric (very high likelihood of type II statistical error).  In summary Marks writes, in contrast with the preening of same-sex marriage advocates, that “the available data…are insufficient to support a strong generalizable claim either way.”  Moreover, the stark APA statement has “no grounding in science.”

Prof. Regnerus, marshaling the new NFSS data, goes a long way toward showing that, if anything, the assumption should be in favor of significant difference between the intact biological family and the instability of same-sex relationships.  Whereas the vast majority of previous studies involved small “convenience samples” in which study participants self-selected, and were thus not properly generalizable to the full population of same-sex families, the NFSS data offers the first random, representative, population sample of American families that includes significant numbers that experienced lesbian (163) or gay (73) relationships.  (The lower number of male same-sex families is consistent with other studies, most of which didn’t even bother to study such arrangements due to their scarcity).

Contrary to the assumption of “no differences,” after applying controls Regnerus found that children who experienced a lesbian mother showed statistically significant differences (that is, the data showed a 95% likelihood that the groups are indeed different) from those from intact biological families on 24 of 40 metrics (19 of 40 for children who experienced a gay father).  All of these differences were either clearly (increased unemployment, increased law-breaking) or arguably (increased incidence of sexual promiscuity and homosexuality) in the suboptimal direction.  Here is a brief sample of the differences found between children who experienced a lesbian mother and those from intact biological families:

  • Four times more likely to be on public assistance.
  • Three and a half time more likely to be unemployed.
  • One-third less likely to identify as entirely heterosexual.
  • Three times more likely to have had an affair while married or cohabiting.
  • Several times more likely to have been sexually abused by a parent or other adult.*
  • Lower levels of physical health.
  • Higher levels of depression.
  • Increased incidence of the use of marijuana.
  • Increased number of arrests.
  • More sexual partners, especially among women.

The upshot, as Regnerus states: “The empirical claim that no differences exist must go.”

Regnerus smartly concludes his paper by reminding the reader what is at stake:

Insofar as the share of intact, biological mother/father families continues to shrink in the United States, as it has, this portends growing challenges within families, but also heightened dependence on public health organizations, federal and state public assistance, psychotherapeutic resources, substance use programs, and the criminal justice system.

That is: the intact married family is a public good, not a private contract utterly insulated from the outside world.  (Put in stark economic terms, married biological families induce positive externalities.)  Social science has consistently shown this; it is one of the few fixed stars in the field.  Why would we further undermine this essential human institution?

Please check back for our soon-to-be-launched Family Forum blog, which will have a more detailed analysis of these papers, their implications, and their critics.

* Regnerus is very careful to point out, as I must be here, that this statistic does not take into account when the abuse occurred.  When broken down in this manner, nearly 50% of those who reported abuse were living either with their biological father or foster parents at the time the abuse started.  Please read the study at page 12 for more detail.


Full Regnerus paper: “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study”

Full Marks paper: “Same-sex parenting and children’s outcomes: A closer examination of the American psychological association’s brief on lesbian and gay parenting”

Regnerus interview on Patheos

Regnerus article in Slate

UPDATE: Ross Douthat on the Regnerus paper