Matthew J. Franck

Mark Regnerus and the storm over his controversial gay parenting study

Matthew J. Franck
By Matthew Franck

November 19, 2012 (ThePublicDiscourse) - Seldom has the publication of a dry, factual report in sociology caused such a storm of controversy. In June 2012, the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal Social Science Research published an article by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus titled, “How different are the children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” The answer to his title’s question was: quite a bit different, and most of the differences are not good.

Within minutes, it seemed, Professor Regnerus, a gifted and highly productive scholar with two previous books published on related subjects, was denounced as “anti-gay,” attacked personally and professionally, and his thoughtful, measured research conclusions were buried under an avalanche of invective, abuse, and misunderstanding. For the remainder of the summer months, Regnerus withstood an onslaught of criticism, but as the autumn arrived, it became clear that his reputation and the soundness of his research had been vindicated.

What had happened?

The editor of Social Science Research, Professor James D. Wright of the University of Central Florida, had known that Regnerus’s article would spark discussion about family and sexuality among sociologists. As he would later say himself when others complained that he was trying to drive up the readership of the journal, “guilty as charged.” What editor doesn’t want people reading and talking about what he works so hard to produce?

This is why Wright published, alongside Regnerus’s new research, a probing criticism of the inadequacy of nearly all previous research on the question of parenting by people in same-sex relationships, authored by Professor Loren Marks of Louisiana State University (who was not connected with Regnerus’s new research in any way). It’s also why Wright invited critiques to be published, in the same issue, by three experienced scholars in the sociology of the family (Paul Amato, David Eggebeen, and Cynthia Osborne), with rejoinders by Regnerus and Marks. It made for a very interesting exchange.

The June 2012 issue of SSR was a red-hot topic of controversy because Regnerus and Marks overthrew a “consensus” among sociologists on the “no differences” thesis—the view that there are no meaningful differences, in the life outcomes of children, between those raised by heterosexual parents and those raised by gay or lesbian ones.

In its most extreme form—one that is not even supported by the generally low-quality research published before Regnerus’s article—the “no differences” thesis holds that children raised by parents who have same-sex relationships do just as well as, or in some cases even better than, those raised in the intact biological family by their own natural parents who are and remain faithfully married to each other.

The American Psychological Association, despite the cagy wording of its bombshell assertion, was probably happy to invite this unwarranted inference in its 2005 legal brief, published to influence judicial deliberations in same-sex marriage lawsuits. The APA said “the evidence to date suggests that home environments provided by lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those provided by heterosexual parents to support and enable children’s psychosocial growth.” And who didn’t think of the Ozzie-and-Harriet natural family when reading “heterosexual parents” in that sentence?

But as Loren Marks showed, the 59 studies grounding the APA’s statement were all deeply flawed, with sampling and design problems, inadequate statistical rigor, and conclusions about “no differences” that could not be justifiably generalized to the larger population.

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And whereas Marks offered only well-founded criticism of previous research, Regnerus offered something new: the first research employing a large, random sample of the young adult population, directly asking them about their childhood experiences and their present state of life, across a range of variables touching on economic and educational success, romantic and sexual experience, substance abuse, experiences with crime and violence, and so forth.

Regnerus and his colleagues in the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), working with the research firm Knowledge Networks, screened more than 15,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 39, and interviewed nearly 3,000 of them. The subjects’ family experiences were sorted into eight categories, ranging from the intact biological family (with the subject’s parents still together at the time of interview), across various family structures involving divorce, remarriage, adoption, and single-parenting, with two categories for subjects raised by mothers or fathers who had same-sex romantic relationships during their childhood.

The results were dismal for the “no differences” thesis: on 25 out of 40 outcomes variables, the children of mothers who had had lesbian relationships fared poorly compared to the children of intact biological families. And on 11 of the 40 outcomes, the children of fathers who had had gay relationships fared poorly on the same comparison. (For a summary of the study’s findings, see Ana Samuel’s Public Discourse article, “The Kids Aren’t All Right,” and this link here.)

Regnerus was cautious in his conclusions: he didn’t label poor outcomes as effects of parents’ sexuality, and noted that “a variety of forces uniquely problematic for child development in lesbian and gay families” could account for the phenomena. But, he concluded, “the empirical claim that no notable differences exist must go.”

The high quality of the New Family Structures Study’s research design, data collection, and findings, and the firmness of Regnerus’s conclusion that the “consensus” in sociology was exploded, only seem to have encouraged interested parties, in the academy and outside it, to attempt to debunk the NFSS. UCLA demographer Gary Gates assembled about 200 scholars to denounce Regnerus’s article, but to little substantive effect.

In the public arena, Regnerus saw his research crudely hashed over at The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the Huffington Post, among other places—and found himself caricatured as strapped to a Catherine wheel on the cover of the Weekly Standard. These are not normal experiences for your average stay-at-home sociology professor. Clearly Regnerus’s political adversaries saw much at stake in the public reception of his research. (For the legal stakes, see my Public Discourse essay, “Supreme Court Take Notice: Two Sociologists Shift the Ground of the Marriage Debate.”)

The two main criticisms of Regnerus’s article, repeated in numerous variations, are these. First, he had used the abbreviations “LM” (for “lesbian mother”) and “GF” (for “gay father”) to describe subjects who knew that their mother or father had a romantic same-sex relationship of any length before the subject turned 18.

The use of “LM” and “GF” was culpably misleading, critics claimed, because the category might include persons who never “identified” as lesbian or gay, and might only have had a “one-night stand” with a same-sex partner. The second criticism, closely related, was that in comparing these young people raised in “LM” and “GF” households, so defined, with those raised in “IBF” households—married heterosexual couples raising their own biological offspring and staying together throughout the subjects’ lives (even beyond their childhood, to the present)—Regnerus was comparing apples to oranges.

In their view, he should have compared children of IBF households with children of long-term, intact, stable same-sex couples who identify as gay or lesbian. Then, they were sure, the differences he found would largely disappear—as they claimed was shown by the previous research Regnerus and Marks had each criticized for their small, unrepresentative samples. What he was really doing, they claimed, was setting stable family situations next to unstable ones—and so stability was the real variable at work. To make it seem that the differences were “about” sexuality was worse than an error, critics claimed: this was culpable distortion of the social phenomena, a twisting of social science in the service of conservative ideology.

A third, more ad hominem criticism was that Regnerus received the majority of his grant funding from the Witherspoon Institute (publisher of Public Discourse), and a minority from the Bradley Foundation—both of them viewed as “conservative” institutions in their educational and philanthropic efforts. But Regnerus declared these facts in his original article, and told his readers that neither Witherspoon nor Bradley had any role in shaping the conduct or the conclusions of his research, which he has made wholly transparent. No one has ever gainsaid this avowal on his part. For my part, I can say that Regnerus had no input on my choice to write this account of the controversy or its content.

In the less responsible precincts of the blogosphere, Regnerus was the target of vicious calumnies along the lines described above, one of which led to the opening of an official “inquiry” by the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches, to determine whether he had committed “scientific misconduct.”

At UT, the policy in such matters is that the merest squeak from any party alleging misconduct is enough to trigger a preliminary inquiry, which in 60 days must determine whether a full-blown investigation is warranted. The university swung into action, doing everything by the book, at no little inconvenience to Regnerus, but at the end of August the UT “research integrity officer” concluded that no plausible charge of misconduct could be substantiated. The university’s provost accepted that conclusion, and closed the matter without prejudice to Regnerus’s standing as a scholar and teacher.

Meanwhile SSR editor James Wright was under fire for publishing Regnerus’s article; for appearing to rush it to publication; and for placing Marks’s article alongside it. Opting for transparency at some risk to his own reputation, Wright asked a member of SSR’s editorial board to “audit” the process that led to the publication of Regnerus’s article.

The risk was that he chose Darren E. Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University whom Regnerus would later describe (without fear of contradiction) as someone “who has long harbored negative sentiment about me.” Sherkat, speaking out of school, confidently told a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education in July that Regnerus’s study was “bull****” when his audit was still in draft form and neither Regnerus nor Wright had written a response to it.

Sherkat’s audit and several other items of interest have now been published in the November 2012 issue of SSR, in a special 40-page section introduced by Wright. To his credit, when he sticks to the charge he was given, Sherkat finds that the journal’s editor did nothing wrong in publishing either Regnerus’s article or Marks’s.

Wright referred both papers to knowledgeable scholars of the subjects involved, who held varying views on the politics of same-sex unions, and who unanimously recommended their publication. No violations of normal procedure occurred; Sherkat says he “may well have made the same decisions” Wright did, given the reviews; and he dismisses as “ludicrous” any suggestion that the editor was up to anything political.

To his discredit, Sherkat, a sociologist of religion who does not appear to have done any research on family and sexuality issues (but for a single article studying how religion and political affiliation affect views of same-sex marriage), nonetheless appoints himself a final referee of the merits of Regnerus’s research—not a function he was asked to perform—and opines that it should not have been published.

James Wright, correctly, takes Sherkat’s conclusions as an auditor as vindication of his editorial performance, and rightly discounts his colleague’s attempt to set himself up as a post hoc referee with a veto over publishing Regnerus’s scholarship. If he sent the work to knowledgeable reviewers who unanimously said to publish it (and Wright notes that such unanimity is unusual), that seems to be the end of the affair.

But it isn’t. In the latest issue Wright chose to publish two significant new contributions to the discussion begun in June. The real issues with Sherkat and other critics are joined by Regnerus, who returns to the pages of SSR with a vigorous response and a re-analysis of his data, and by Professor Walter Schumm of Kansas State, who contributes an expert review of what we know from social science today about the interwoven variables of sexuality, family stability, and childrearing outcomes.

I’ll say more on these contributions in tomorrow’s essay.

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Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University. Reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse.

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PBS defends decision to air pro-abortion documentary ‘After Tiller’

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By Dustin Siggins

Under pressure for showing the pro-abortion documentary "After Tiller" on Labor Day, PBS' "POV" affiliate has defended the decision in response to an inquiry from LifeSiteNews.

The producers of the film say their goal with the documentary, which tells the stories of four late-term abortion doctors after the killing of infamous late-term abortionist George Tiller, is to "change public perception of third-trimester abortion providers by building a movement dedicated to supporting their right to work with a special focus on maintaining their safety.” 

POV told LifeSiteNews, "We do believe that 'After Tiller' adds another dimension to an issue that is being debated widely." Asked if POV will show a pro-life documentary, the organization said that it "does not have any other films currently scheduled on this issue. POV received almost 1000 film submissions each year through our annual call for entries and we welcome the opportunity to consider films with a range of points of view."

When asked whether POV was concerned about alienating its viewership -- since PBS received millions in federal tax dollars in 2012 and half of Americans identify as pro-life -- POV said, "The filmmakers would like the film to add to the discussion around these issues. Abortion is already a legal procedure."

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"This is an issue that people feel passionately about and will have a passionate response to. We are hopeful that the majority of people can see it for what it is, another lens on a very difficult issue." 

In addition to the documentary, POV has written materials for community leaders and teachers to share. A cursory examination of the 29-page document, which is available publicly, appears to include links to outside sources that defend Roe v. Wade, an examination of the constitutional right to privacy, and "a good explanation of the link between abortion law and the right to privacy," among other information.

Likewise, seven clips recommended for student viewing -- grades 11 and beyond -- include scenes where couples choose abortion because the children are disabled. Another shows pro-life advocates outside a doctor's child's school, and a third is described as showing "why [one of the film's doctors] chose to offer abortion services and includes descriptions of what can happen when abortion is illegal or unavailable, including stories of women who injured themselves when they tried to terminate their own pregnancies and children who were abused because they were unwanted."

Another clip "includes footage of protesters, as well as news coverage of a hearing in the Nebraska State Legislature in which abortion opponents make reference to the idea that a fetus feels pain." The clip's description fails to note that it is a scientifically proven fact that unborn children can feel pain.

The documentary is set to air on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern on Labor Day.

Kirsten Andersen contributed to this article.

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He defended ‘real’ marriage, and then was beheaded for it

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By Pete Baklinski

A Christian man was executed during the night by a high-profile ruler after making an uncompromising defense of real marriage.

The Christian, who was renowned for his holiness, had told the ruler in public that his relationship with his partner was “against the law” of God. The Christian’s words enraged the ruler’s partner who successfully plotted to have him permanently silenced.

John the Baptist was first imprisoned before he was beheaded. The Catholic Church honors him today, August 29, as a martyr and saint.

While John’s death happened a little less than 2,000 years ago, his heroic stance for real marriage is more pertinent today than ever before.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the ruler Herod had ‘married’ his brother’s wife Herodias. When John told Herod with complete frankness, “It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife,” Herodias became “furious” with him to the point of wanting him killed for his intolerance, bullying, and hate-speech.

Herodias found her opportunity to silence John by having her daughter please Herod during a dance at a party. Herod offered the girl anything she wanted. The daughter turned to her mother for advice, and Herodias said to ask for John’s head on a platter.

Those who fight for real marriage today can learn three important lessons from John’s example.

  1. Those proudly living in ungodly and unnatural relationships — often referred to in today’s sociopolitical sphere as ‘marriage’ — will despise those who tell them what they are doing is wrong. Real marriage defenders must expect opposition to their message from the highest levels.
  2. Despite facing opposition, John was not afraid to defend God’s plan for marriage in the public square, even holding a secular ruler accountable to this plan. John, following the third book of the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:21), held that a man marrying the wife of his brother was an act of “impurity” and therefore abhorrent to God. Real marriage defenders must boldly proclaim today that God is the author of marriage, an institution he created to be a life-long union between one man and one woman from which children arise and in which they are best nurtured. Marriage can be nothing more, nothing less.
  3. John did not compromise on the truth of marriage as revealed by God, even to the point of suffering imprisonment and death for his unpopular position. Real marriage defenders must never compromise on the truth of marriage, even if the government, corporate North America, and the entire secular education system says otherwise. They must learn to recognize the new “Herodias” of today who despises those raising a voice against her lifestyle. They must stand their ground no matter what may come, no matter what the cost.

John the Baptist was not intolerant or a bigot, he simply lived the word of God without compromise, speaking the word of truth when it was needed, knowing that God’s way is always the best way. Were John alive today, he would be at the forefront of the grassroots movement opposing the social and political agenda to remake marriage in the image of man.

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If he were alive today he might speak simple but eloquent words such as, “It is against God’s law for two men or two women to be together as a husband and wife in marriage. Marriage can only be between a man and a woman.” 

He would most likely be hated. He would be ridiculed. He would surely have the human rights tribunals throwing the book at him. But he would be speaking the truth and have God as his ally. 

The time may not be far off when those who defend real marriage, like John, will be presented with the choice of following Caesar or making the ultimate sacrifice. May God grant his faithful the grace to persevere in whatever might come. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

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The Wunderlich family Mike Donnelly / Home School Legal Defence Association
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German homeschoolers regain custody of children, vow to stay and fight for freedom

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

One year to the day since a team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed a homeschooling family’s residence near Darmstadt, Germany, and forcibly removed all four of the family’s children, aged 7 to 14, a state appeals court has returned custody of the children to their parents.

The reason given for the removal was that parents Dirk and Petra Wunderlich continued to homeschool their children in defiance of a German ban on home education.

The children were returned three weeks after being taken, following an international outcry spearheaded by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

However, a lower court imposed the condition on the parents that their children were required to attend state schools in order for them to be released, and took legal custody of the children in order to prevent the family from leaving the country.

In a decision that was still highly critical of the parents and of homeschooling, the appeals court decided that the action of the lower court in putting the children in the custody of the state was “disproportional” and ordered complete custody returned to the parents, according to a statement by the HSLDA.

The Wunderlichs, who began homeschooling again when the court signaled it would rule this way, said they were very pleased with the result, but noted that the court’s harsh words about homeschooling indicated that their battle was far from over.

“We have won custody and we are glad about that,” Dirk said.

“The court said that taking our children away was not proportionate—only because the authorities should apply very high fines and criminal prosecution instead. But this decision upholds the absurd idea that homeschooling is child endangerment and an abuse of parental authority.”

The Wunderlichs are now free to emigrate to another country where homeschooling is legal, if they choose, but they said they intend to remain in Germany and work for educational freedom.

“While we no longer fear that our children will be taken away as long as we are living in Hessen, it can still happen to other people in Germany,” Dirk said. “Now we fear crushing fines up to $75,000 and jail. This should not be tolerated in a civilized country.”

Petra Wunderlich said, "We could not do this without the help of HSLDA,” but cautioned that, “No family can fight the powerful German state—it is too much, too expensive."

"If it were not for HSLDA and their support, I am afraid our children would still be in state custody. We are so grateful and thank all homeschoolers who have helped us by helping HSLDA.”

HSLDA’s Director for Global Outreach, Michael Donnelly, said he welcomed the ruling but was concerned about the court’s troubling language.

“We welcome this ruling that overturns what was an outrageous abuse of judicial power,” he said.

“The lower court decision to take away legal custody of the children essentially imprisoned the Wunderlich family in Germany. But this decision does not go far enough. The court has only grudgingly given back custody and has further signaled to local authorities that they should still go after the Wunderlichs with criminal charges or fines.”

Donnelly pointed out that such behavior in a democratic country is problematic.

“Imprisonment and fines for homeschooling are outside the bounds of what free societies that respect fundamental human rights should tolerate,” he explained.

“Freedom and fundamental human rights norms demand respect for parental decision making in education. Germany’s state and national policies that permit banning home education must be changed.

"Such policies from a leading European democracy not only threaten the rights of tens of thousands of German families but establish a dangerous example that other countries may be tempted to follow,” Donnelly warned.

HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris said that acting on behalf of the Wunderlichs was an important stand for freedom.

“The Wunderlichs are a good and decent family whose basic human rights were violated and are still threatened,” Farris said.

“Their fight is our fight," Farris stressed, "and we will continue to support those who stand against German policy banning homeschooling that violates international legal norms. Free people cannot tolerate such oppression and we will do whatever we can to fight for families like the Wunderlichs both here in the United States and abroad. We must stand up to this kind of persecution where it occurs or we risk seeing own freedom weakened.”

Visit the HSLDA website dedicated to helping the Wunderlich family and other German homeschoolers here.

Contact the German embassy in the U.S. here.

Contact the German embassy in Canada here.

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