Much has been made of the 2012 New Family Structures Study, including a blog note from my AmSpec colleague Patrick Ryan on these very pages yesterday, regarding various outcomes (educational, social, health, etc) of children raised in households with at least one gay parent versus in traditional households.
The study suggests worse outcomes for those in same-sex households.
I’m a libertarian and don’t care about people’s sexual orientation; I don’t have a dog in this fight. My interest is with the children, not with the parents regardless of their sexual orientation.
Critics on the left, who see the study being used for political purposes (as if the left’s purposes aren’t political) have thrown a lot of mud at the study, not just on methodology, but also on level of peer review and on funding sources (apparently from a conservative anti-gay marriage organization). I don’t make much of these criticisms. Mostly, it’s more of the left’s attempt to smear a messenger when they don’t like the message. And I take Regnerus at his word in his response to those criticisms.
But that doesn’t mean I have no concerns about the study.
I sent the study’s lead investigator, Mark Regnerus, the following question:
Did you control for whatever percentage of children of same-sex couples are adopted (particularly adopted after the age of 2 or 3)? If, as I suspect, a much higher percentage of same-sex couples’ children fall into that category, it would make more sense to compare them to adopted children of heterosexual couples than to all children of heterosexual couples. And I would generally expect adopted children to do slightly less well than children living with the parents they were born to, especially if adopted well into childhood.
Regnerus responded with a document he published last year responding to critics of the study. You can view that document here.
As I try to understand more about the study, however, I think I may have asked the wrong question, initially believing to be about children raised in overtly gay or overtly straight homes.
I was thinking of the study as roughly a comparison between kids raised in traditional homes and kids either born or adopted into overtly gay homes.
But it seems that the study includes, and perhaps unintentionally overweights, though I can’t tell from the limited data I’ve been able to find, homes where a parent had a homosexual relationship at some point. In other words, a traditional family where the mother then had a lesbian affair, or the father a gay affair. In either case, what you’re talking about is an extremely disruptive circumstance which would be expected to cause worse outcomes for children in those households, just as divorce or a heterosexual affair would, or just as putting a child up for adoption would.
Frankly, I am not convinced by the methodological aspects of the study, as I understand them, despite the authors trying to get cover with a larger sample size than some other studies of similar topics.
As Regnerus put it in the interview linked above, “Future studies would ideally include more children from ‘planned’ gay or lesbian families, but their relative scarcity in the NFSS data suggests that their appearance in even much larger probability samples may remain infrequent for the foreseeable future.”
To the extent that the political debate is essentially all about “planned” homosexual families, given that gay marriage and adoption issues are all about planning, I’m highly skeptical that this study provides valid insights into the most debated aspects of “gay rights” in the US today.
My guess is that outcomes for children in “planned” and relatively stable situations will always (in the aggregate) be better than outcomes for “unplanned” and unstable situations.
So, while Regnerus’ results are probably reasonable as far as they go, the inferences for public policy being taken from the results, especially by those on the right, strike me as improper because the study is not looking at the situations which are created or governed by public policy.
Separate from the data itself, it simply stands to reason that children of parents who provide stability and caring will do better than children of parents who don’t. I find little reason to think that a “planned” gay couple can’t provide similar stability to that of a traditional couple, particularly as gay marriage or civil unions become more common.
While the plural of anecdote is not “data”, the two gay couples I know (one couple better than the other, one couple being two men and one being two women) who have children, the children seem to be happy, healthy, and thriving in the care of truly loving parents.
In short, attributing no ulterior motive to the study’s authors, I simply don’t see the study as saying what critics of pro-gay public policy want it to say. I don’t offer this as a criticism of those critics, but simply to say that they need better evidence than this study to argue that gay couples or the adoption of children by gays (or them having children of their own by non-traditional means) is inherently harmful to the country or, most importantly, to those children.