Academic witch hunt ends in acquittal

A Child Trends report in 2002 concluded: “First, research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.”

There is plenty of social science evidence, spanning decades, to support this assertion, much of it collected in a report by the National Marriage Project called “Why Marriage Matters.”

Some influential voices would like to place an asterisk on the conclusion that married biological parents are the gold standard in terms of child well-being. They argue that there is one family structure that seems to be an exception to the common-sense view that children benefit from a stable family structure with their own biological parents. This group consists of same-sex couples raising children. Despite the lack of sexual complementarity and biological relatedness, we are told by organizations like the American Psychological Association, children raised by parents in same-sex relationships experience no different outcomes. (For a critique of the APA position paper on same-sex marriage, see this briefing paper from the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy [iMapp].)

There were two important caveats downplayed in the magical thinking that underlay the conclusion that family structure matters for children except children raised by parents in same-sex relationships. First, the data supporting this assertion was actually quite weak, plagued by small sample sizes, non-random samples, failure to analyze objective outcomes, and a lack of longitudinal data. Second, even some of the studies that purported to support same-sex couple parenting actually found differences in things like relationship stability, sexual behavior of children, etc. (Another iMapp paper details the criticisms and the studies suggesting differences.)

Into this mix came a study that corrected for some of the serious problems in previous studies. It used a large random sample, covering a significant period of time and including the reports of children themselves on objective measures. Consistent with previous studies, it found greater instability in same-sex couple relationships and that children who reported a parent in a same-sex relationship were more likely to experience a number of significant negative outcomes.

This was not consistent with the magical thinking regnant in some circles and a firestorm erupted – not against the poor studies that had given a misleading picture, but at the better study that corrected them. The author of the study, Mark Regnerus, was subjected to an “ethics” complaint by a blogger that Dr. Regnerus’ university accorded a full investigation (somewhat akin to having the development office explore whether the unsolicited emails about winning the Irish lottery could result in cash for the university).

That is where the story ended for many. Boosters of alternative family forms believed the mere imputation of wrongdoing, however far-fetched, would provide enough excuse to ignore inconvenient findings. It would also have the intended effect of dissuading other researchers from coming to unapproved conclusions.

The campaign of intimidation failed, however. Though not as widely reported as the accusations, the university issued a report finding that the accusations against Dr. Regnerus were baseless and adding that those who have qualms with the study were free to conduct their own research. Dr. Regnerus and his important work were vindicated.

Hopefully academics will take heart and continue to honestly explore these social issues fraught with so much importance for society. If not, the intimidation will have worked. That would be a tragedy.