by Peter Sprigg
October 17, 2014
On Sunday, October 12, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins appeared on Fox News Sunday to debate the redefinition of marriage with Ted Olson, a prominent Republican attorney and advocate of giving civil marriage licenses to homosexual couples.
At one point in the discussion, Olson began to argue that we should redefine marriage because it would benefit children who are being raised by same-sex couples. Perkins replied, “We know from the social science that children do best with a mom and a dad.”
Within hours, the “fact-checking” website PolitiFact posted an analysis of the statement—and rated it “False.”
Unfortunately, the PolitiFact article itself gets a failing grade.
That is, unless they think the non-partisan, non-profit research group Child Trends was also telling a “falsehood” when they reported, “An extensive body of research tells us that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.”
Presumably, they also think it was “false” when the anti-poverty group the Center for Law and Social Policy reported, “Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step- or cohabiting-parent households. Compared to children who are raised by their married parents, children in other family types are more likely to achieve lower levels of education, to become teen parents, and to experience health, behavior, and mental health problems.”
And I guess they would also rate as “false” the statement by the Institute for American Values, which declared (as one of its “fundamental conclusions” about “what current social science evidence reveals about marriage in our social system”), “The intact, biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life in the United States, insofar as children are most likely to thrive—economically, socially, and psychologically—in this family form.”
I suppose PolitiFact would also say it was false when the American College of Pediatricians said that “the family structure which leads to optimal child development is the family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.” The ACP added details:
A growing and increasingly sophisticated body of research indicates that children with married parents (both a mother and a father) have more healthful measures of:
- thriving as infants
- physical and mental health
- educational attainment
- protection from poverty
- protection from antisocial behavior
- protection from physical abuse
The PolitiFact article put much emphasis on “peer-reviewed” literature. Are they actually suggesting that the conclusions of every single one of the sources cited in the following passage (adapted from my book Outrage) are “false”?
Children raised by opposite-sex married parents experience lower rates of many social pathologies, including:
- premarital childbearing (Kristin A. Moore, “Nonmarital School-Age Motherhood: Family, Individual, and School Characteristics,” Journal of Adolescent Research 13, October 1998: 433-457);
- illicit drug use (John P. Hoffman and Robert A. Johnson, “A National Portrait of Family Structure and Adolescent Drug Use,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60, August 1998: 633-645);
- arrest (Chris Coughlin and Samuel Vucinich, “Family Experience in Preadolescence and the Development of Male Delinquency,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58, May 1996: 491-501);
- health, emotional, or behavioral problems (Deborah A. Dawson, “Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, August 1991: 573-584);
- poverty (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, America’s Children: Key Indicators of Well-Being 2001, Washington, D.C., p. 14);
- or school failure or expulsion (Dawson, op.cit.).
PolitiFact must also not trust federal government survey research—such as that published just a few months ago which said, “Children in nonparental care were 2.7 times as likely as children living with two biological parents to have had at least one adverse experience, and more than 2 times as likely as children living with one biological parent and about 30 times as likely as children living with two biological parents to have had four or more adverse experiences.” (Note that if you turn this around, it is saying that “children living with two biological parents” are at least fifteen times less likely “to have had four or more adverse experiences” than children in any other living situation with which they were compared.)
Finally, the Mapping America series produced by FRC’s own Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) has documented (based primarily on federal government survey data) literally dozens of outcome measures for which, on average, children raised in an intact married family do better than those in other family structures.
There are certainly other things PolitiFact could have said to put Perkins’ comment in perspective. They might legitimately have pointed out, for example, that relatively few studies have been conducted to date which makes direct comparisons between children raised by their married, biological mother and father and children raised by same-sex couples. While it is certainly true, not false, that there is a large and robust body of social science evidence indicating that “children do best with a mom and a dad,” as Perkins indicated, most of the studies involved in that body of research compared children raised by their married, biological mother and father with children raised in alternate family structures such as single-parent, divorced, or step-parent households—but did not include direct comparisons with the (relatively tiny) population of children raised by same-sex couples.
For example, the New Family Structures Study spearheaded by sociologist Mark Regnerus resulted in dramatic (and statistically powerful) results demonstrating the strong advantage held by the “intact biological family” over numerous other family forms. However—as Regnerus made clear from the beginning—even his comparison with “gay fathers” or “lesbian mothers” was only based on the adult respondents having said that at some point between birth and age 18, their father or mother had a same-sex romantic relationship. It was not a comparison with children raised by same-sex couples living and raising the children together (of which very few could be found, even in Regnerus’ large sample).
A key illustration of how the PolitiFact article lacked objectivity is that its description of the Regnerus research sounds as though it were simply cut and pasted from the talking points of “gay” bloggers. It is true that his research was sharply criticized in a variety of quarters—that is to be expected, given that academia is now dominated by liberal elites who are unwilling to tolerate the slightest dissent from the pro-homosexual orthodoxy. It is also true that among his fellow sociologists who distanced themselves from the study were members of the sociology department at his own university, the University of Texas.
However, it is false to say (as PolitiFact did) that the university itself “denounced” Regnerus’ research. On the contrary, the university conducted a full investigation of charges brought by a “gay” blogger who uses the pen name “Scott Rose,” and concluded, “Professor Regnerus did not commit scientific misconduct… . None of the allegations of scientific misconduct put forth by Mr. Rose were substantiated …” The New Family Structures Study continues to be hosted by the Population Research Center within the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.
The journal which published two Regnerus articles based on the New Family Structures Study, Social Science Research, also published extensive critiques of his work. Its editor designated a sharp critic of Regnerus, Darren Sherkat, to conduct an “audit” of the publication process. Since PolitiFact was dismissive of a book-length scholarly work because it was not subject to “peer review” like academic journal articles, it is worth noting what Sherkat said about peer review of Regnerus’ work: “Five of the reviewers are very regular, reliable SSR reviewers, and all six were notable scholars. Indeed, the three scholars who are not publicly conservative can be accurately described as social science superstars.” Most importantly, as editor James D. Wright points out, “all reviewers of both papers agreed that the papers warranted publication. The unanimity of reviewer opinion is notable in this case and is also fairly unusual.” A more thorough description of the Regnerus study can be found here, and a more detailed analysis of its actual findings can be found here.
One early study which did make a direct, couples-to-couples comparison was a 1996 study by an Australian sociologist who compared children raised by heterosexual married couples, heterosexual cohabiting couples, and homosexual cohabiting couples. It found that the children of heterosexual married couples did the best, and children of homosexual couples the worst, in nine of the thirteen academic and social categories measured.
More recently, studies based on U.S. and Canadian census data have allowed couples-to-couples comparisons using much larger sample sizes, but with respect to only a single outcome measure. Canadian economist Douglas W. Allen and two co-authors analyzed data from the 2000 census in the United States and reported, “Compared with traditional married households, we find that children being raised by same-sex couples are 35% less likely to make normal progress through school.” Another study by Allen using the 2006 Canada census found, “Children living with gay and lesbian families [i.e., a “same-sex married or common law couple”] in 2006 were about 65% as likely to graduate compared to children living in opposite sex marriage families.”
Advocates for homosexual parenting and the redefinition of marriage sometimes argue (as PolitiFact did in a similar article challenging a Ralph Reed comment in April 2014), “What studies really show is that children are better off with two parents. Those studies do not focus on gender.” This statement by PolitiFact is clearly false. Most of the studies cited above focused on the presence of two biological parents—which by definition includes both the mother and the father. At best, same-sex couples resemble a step-parent situation, in which at most one of the caregivers is the biological parent of the child. The Child Trends publication cited above noted:
“Children growing up with stepparents also have lower levels of well-being than children growing up with biological parents. Thus, it is not simply the presence of two parents, as some have assumed, but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development.”
(Note: FRC believes that adopted children also benefit from the gender complementarity in parenting provided by an adoptive mother and father. However, the bulk of the research has focused specifically on households headed by the married, biological mother and father.)
On the other hand, the research that has been done specifically on children raised by same-sex couples has usually compared them only to children of “heterosexual” parents—including single-parent or divorced households—rather than comparing them directly to children raised by their married, biological mother and father (the “intact biological family,” as Regnerus refers to it).
The Center for Law and Social Policy report, cited above, summarized the implications of this succinctly:
Children of gay or lesbian parents do not look different from their counterparts raised in heterosexual divorced families regarding school performance, behavior problems, emotional problems, early pregnancy, or difficulties finding employment. However, … children of divorce are at higher risk for many of these problems than children of married parents [emphasis added].
The PolitiFact article seemed to be devoted to debunking things that Tony Perkins did not say, rather than what he actually did say. If Perkins had said, “We know from the social science that children do better with a mom and a dad than with two moms or two dads,” PolitiFact might legitimately have challenged it—not because it is “false,” but because there is insufficient research on that direct comparison to assert we can “know” it as a social science certainty.
If Perkins had said, “We know from the social science that children do better with heterosexual parents than with homosexual parents,” then PolitiFact might also have challenged that—again, not because it is “false,” but because family dysfunction among heterosexuals (such as out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and cohabiting parents) is clearly harmful to children as well.
However, Perkins was clear, precise—and accurate—in what he did say, that “children do best with a mom and a dad.”
If, though, the social science research has not provided us with true, apples-to-apples comparisons between children raised by same-sex couples and children raised by their mother and father, was it legitimate for Tony Perkins to bring this truth about the general parenting research into a debate specifically about same-sex “marriage?”
I believe it was, because of the significant difference in quality and quantity between the two bodies of research at issue. As indicated by the summary statements quoted above, the research showing that children raised by their married biological mother and father do better than any other family structure with which they have been compared is extensive, methodologically sound, and convincing.
On the other hand, the research focused specifically on children raised by same-sex couples, most of which has been reported as showing that they do just as well or show “no differences” in comparison with children raised by “heterosexual parents,” suffers from serious methodological flaws.
Much of it has relied on small, non-random “convenience samples”—obtained, for example, by advertising in “gay” media. These samples may not be truly representative of the population of same-sex couples raising children. Parents whose children have significant problems may be less likely to volunteer, and parents who do volunteer may have an incentive (including a political one, knowing the significance of the research in public debates) to downplay any problems their children have (many such studies rely on the parent’s own report of child well-being).
In addition, arguments touting the large number of published studies supporting the “no differences” claim are misleading, because many of those studies are based on a single data set, from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS). The NLLFS website lists 21 publications which have been directly based on this study, and five more related to it.
A 149-page book published in 2001 did a detailed analysis of the homosexual parenting research up to that point. The result was:
“We conclude that the methods used in these studies are so flawed that these studies prove nothing. Therefore, they should not be used in legal cases to make any argument about ‘homosexual vs. heterosexual’ parenting. Their claims have no basis.”
A similar analysis was conducted by researcher Loren Marks and published in the same 2012 issue of Social Science Research as the first Regnerus article. Marks analyzes the 59 previous studies cited in a 2005 policy brief on homosexual parents by the American Psychological Association (APA). Marks debunks the APA’s claim that “[n]ot a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.” Marks also points out that only four of the 59 studies cited by the APA even met the APA’s own standards by “provid[ing] evidence of statistical power.” As Marks so carefully documents, “[N]ot one of the 59 studies referenced in the 2005 APA Brief compares a large, random, representative sample of lesbian or gay parents and their children with a large, random, representative sample of married parents and their children.”
So, the research supposedly showing “no differences” between children raised by same-sex couples and those raised by heterosexuals (remember, they are not usually compared with children raised by their own mother and father) is simply unreliable. The research showing that children do best when raised by their own, married, biological mother and father, when compared with numerous other family structures, is robust and clear-cut.
Essentially, homosexual activists (and PolitiFact) are claiming that children raised by homosexual couples are, remarkably, the lone exception to the overwhelming social science research consensus regarding the optimal family structure for children.
We rate their claim, “Highly Implausible.”