In the debate over gay marriage in our country, one of the chief bones of contention has to do with the effects that gay marriages have on child-rearing. There have been many studies in the past showing that children of intact biological families fare better than those of single or cohabitating families. But there have not been very many studies showing how children of homosexuals fare. Indeed in 2008, Robert George et al. observed that,
The current research on children reared by them is inconclusive and underdeveloped—we do not yet have any large, long-term, longitudinal studies that can tell us much about how children are affected by being raised in a same-sex household.
Enter Mark Regnerus and a team of researchers who just published an important study to help fill this gap. Recently published in the journal Social Science Research, the study surveys 3,000 U.S. adults ages 18-39 about factors such as income, relational stability, mental health, and history of sexual abuse. The results of this study are explosive for a number of reasons, but here is Regnerus’ summary:
On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families… Respondents were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.
There have been some recent studies indicating that children of homosexual parents fare no differently than children of intact biological parents. Regnerus comments on why the results of his survey differ so radically from those other studies. He writes:
So why did this study come up with such different results than previous work in the field? And why should one study alter so much previous sentiment? Basically, 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. In its place, the scholarly community has often been treated to small, nonrandom “convenience” studies of mostly white, well-educated lesbian parents, including plenty of data-collection efforts in which participants knew that they were contributing to important studies with potentially substantial political consequences, elevating the probability of something akin to the “Hawthorne Effect.” This is hardly an optimal environment for collecting unbiased data (and to their credit, many of the researchers admitted these challenges). I’m not claiming that all the previous research on this subject is bunk. But small or nonrandom studies shouldn’t be the gold standard for research, all the more so when we’re dealing with a topic so weighted with public interest and significance.
Regnerus’ study is not light reading. But if you want to see it for yourself with all the data included, you can do so here. Regnerus has a non-technical summary of the article here. The study does not focus on stable same-sex couples raising children. This is surely to become a point of contention in discussions about this article. Indeed, you can read Time magazine’s critique along these lines here.
What are we as Christians to make of a study like this one? I think there is some value in studies that confirm what the Bible says promotes the public good and human flourishing. The problem with social scientific research is that the methodology and the assumptions of the researchers often shape the outcomes. While I’m sure that Regnerus’ study was well-founded and carefully done, I’m just as sure that other studies with different methodologies and different assumptions will come forth to challenge this one.
What that means is that social scientific surveys are not at the end of the day what binds our consciences to the norm of heterosexual marriage. Studies have some use in the public discourse, but our ultimate authority is the word of God. Here we take our stand, even when the studies disagree.
Having said that, this study adds a significant wrinkle to public conversation about same-sex marriage. That conversation is far from over.