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Same-sex parenting studies draw both praise and outrage

Published: Tuesday, June 12 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Researcher Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas Austin's Population Research Center, led a study that  found that adult children of parents who have been in same-sex relationships are different than children raised in intact biological mother-father families on a number of social, emotional and relationship measures.  (,) Researcher Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas Austin's Population Research Center, led a study that found that adult children of parents who have been in same-sex relationships are different than children raised in intact biological mother-father families on a number of social, emotional and relationship measures. (,)

The journal Social Science Research on Sunday published a pair of articles on same-sex parenting, igniting a broad across-media discussion that has been sometimes heated, sometimes measured and often vivid.

The first study, led by Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas Austin's Population Research Center, found that adult children of parents who have been in same-sex relationships are different than children raised in intact biological mother-father families on a number of social, emotional and relationship measures. The study, according to Regnerus, did not attempt to show what caused the differences in outcome and it did not predict if changing attitudes will yield different results for those growing up now in same-sex parenting households.

The second study, by associate professor of sociology Loren Marks at Louisiana State University, challenges the construction of some of the earlier research that found no difference or even an advantage to being raised by lesbian moms, compared to heterosexual families. He told the Deseret News that those studies were inadequate, biased and unreliable. That body of research underpinned a 2005 brief by the American Psychological Association.

Reaction has been mixed. Here's a sampling.

The New York Times noted that "gay-rights groups attacked the study, financed by conservative foundations, as biased and poorly done even before its publication on Sunday in the journal Social Science Research."

It went on: "But outside experts, by and large, said the research was rigorous, providing some of the best data yet comparing outcomes for adult children with a gay parent with those with heterosexual parents. But they also said the findings were not particularly relevant to the current debate over gay marriage or gay parenting."

Slate, an online website that examines current events and issues, featured an insider's view of the research in an article by Regnerus. And Slate offered a different viewpoint, as well, with an article by William Saletan that said the Regnerus study could help make a case for gay marriage.

Wrote Regnerus, "Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that sexual orientation is at fault here, or that I know about kids who are presently being raised by gay or lesbian parents. Their parents may be forging more stable relationships in an era that is more accepting and supportive of gay and lesbian couples. But that is not the case among the previous generation, and thus social scientists, parents, and advocates would do well from here forward to avoid simply assuming the kids are all right."

Regnerus says his findings were different than earlier studies because of "better methods. When it comes to assessing how children of gay parents are faring, the careful methods and random sampling approach found in demography has not often been employed by scholars studying this issue, due in part — to be sure — to the challenges in locating and surveying small minorities randomly."

Saletan begins his article this way: "Is same-sex marriage a good idea? Or is an intact biological family the best environment for raising a child? The answer may turn out to be yes and yes." He concludes with this: "The methodology and findings, coupled with previous research, point to deeper differences that transcend orientation. 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.

Many of the articles that criticize the rigor of the research either ignore Marks' study, which was critical of the research they tout, or dismiss it with similar criticism to that which he leveled at previous research. The "Gay South Florida blog" on the Miami Herald site, for instance, calls Regnerus' work "flawed, misleading and unsound," but never mentioned Marks' study.

Discovery News captured some of the opposing views about the study and how it could be used politically in its analysis, which lambasted the research. "Regnerus himself told LiveScience that he doesn't believe his study speaks to the politics of same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, the research has been cast in that light, showing up in a New York Times op-ed piece by Ross Douthat suggesting that the article is a case for caution in legalizing gay unions. By the same token, Slate writer William Saletan argued that the research makes a case for gay marriage in order to promote stable same-sex relationships for the sake of the children.

"Scientists, however, say that both uses of the research reach too far, given the fuzzy definition of same-sex parenting in the survey."

"I don't think it's the kind of study to lead you to any policy position, frankly," Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University who was not involved in the research, told LifeScience.

One of the research critics is Jim Burroway, in the Box Turtle Bulletin. He also dislikes Regnerus' research methodology. "When you look at the data, the study’s real findings become obvious. Children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship — a group that includes very large numbers of children of divorced parents, single parents, adopted parents, step-parents and “other” family structures — have developmental outcomes which are remarkably similar to children of divorced, single, adopted, step-, and 'other' family structures overall when compared to intact, non-adoptive heterosexual families."

That has been one of the issues critics, including Marks, have noted with the previous research that found children fare as well or even better in same-sex families as in intact biological families. The small, convenience samples have not compared same-sex parent families directly with intact biological families to reach their conclusions and they've lacked numerical heft, they say.

One of the barriers, according to Burroway, is funding for large population-based research. It's too expensive. But he also criticized the funding that made possible Regnerus' larger-scale research. The study was funded by what he refers to as "two conservative-leaning foundations, Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation."

Regnerus said they had no control over the study design, interpretation or conclusions.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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