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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Michelle Kaufman, New Zealand Correspondent

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Abortion group targets pro-life doctors, nurses with new website: New Zealand

Michelle Kaufman, New Zealand Correspondent
By Michelle Kaufman

Pro-life health practitioners and crisis pregnancy centres in New Zealand are the target of a new website designed to intimidate those who choose not to refer for abortion or prescribe contraception.

The website, My Decision, is created by the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand (ALRANZ). 

The site lists health practitioners and crisis pregnancy centres which they believe women should avoid.  The incomplete list includes the names of individuals or organisations, the region and town, and whether they are a doctor, nurse or other provider. 

Women are asked to submit their stories of “hostile or unhelpful health professionals.”  The stories are non-identifying and can be edited for length or clarity.  At the time of writing only two stories had been posted.

In an earlier blog post, ALRANZ mentioned that the new website, which was still under construction at the time, is “aimed at shining the light on ‘conscientious objectors’… who deny people the reproductive healthcare they want or need.”

Right to Life NZ says they believe the site is “denigrating the good name and reputations of health professionals who believe that abortion is a harmful choice.”

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Under New Zealand law, health practitioners can object to providing reproductive health services according to their conscience.  However, there is one caveat – they “must inform the person who requests the service that he or she can obtain the service from another health practitioner or from a family planning clinic.”

 “Sonscientious objection is a fundamental right and one that must be preserved if we are to continue to live in a free and civil society,” said Chris O’Brien, Vice President of Right to Life NZ. “We risk tyranny if this right is taken away.”

“There are very good doctors that appear on that website” said Dame Colleen Bayer, whose Dunedin Family Life Crisis Pregnancy Centre is also named.  “These doctors speak truthfully and have real care and concern for their patients.  Women do themselves a disservice to discount them based on this information.”

The resource section on the My Decision website links to ALRANZ, Family Planning (an affiliate of International Planned Parenthood Federation and an abortion provider), and the website Abortion Services in New Zealand. 

The Abortion Services website is sponsored by ISTAR Ltd, a registered Charitable Trust which is the sole importer of mifepristone into New Zealand.  ISTAR also provides Manual Vacuum Aspiration equipment for early surgical abortions.

ALRANZ, was instrumental in the writing of the Greens abortion policy, which was unveiled earlier this year.  That policy aims to take abortion out of the Crimes Act making it more accessible.  The policy also targets health professionals who may conscientiously object to ensure they refer patients on to a “neutral practitioner”.

More information about freedom of conscience in healthcare 


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The government is proposing allowing the killing of pre-born babies suspected of being disabled and those conceived through rape or incest.
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Northern Ireland considers allowing killing disabled unborn babies: pro-lifers condemn

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

Northern Ireland’s leading pro-life group, Precious Life, has condemned this week's announcement by Justice Minister David Ford that a consultation on changing the abortion law will be "ready by autumn." The government is considering allowing the killing of pre-born babies suspected of being disabled and those conceived through rape or incest.

“Abortion is a serious criminal offence in Northern Ireland,” said the director of Precious Life, Bernadette Smyth. “The law here protects unborn babies, and David Ford as Minister for Justice must ensure that all children are legally protected."

Last December, Ford revealed he would be undertaking a consultation to consider changes to the law after he heard the stories of two women, who complained that they had not been allowed to abort their babies who had been diagnosed with anencephaly. Instead, they said, they had traveled to Britain for abortions.

Abortion was refused under Northern Ireland’s laws because the diagnosis of anencephaly for the child poses no medical threat to the mother.

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On Monday Ford told the BBC that the Department of Justice would bring forward its consultation paper on changing Northern Ireland's abortion laws by the fall.

However, Smyth warned that “the core ethical principle which must underpin this discussion is that every child deserves the right to life regardless of how short their life may be, and regardless of the circumstances of their conception."

She vowed that Precious Life will launch a public campaign in support of the life of all unborn babies.

“We all feel enormous sympathy for parents in these traumatic and distressing cases," Precious Life stressed in a statement. "But parents in these difficult situations deserve much more than our sympathy – they need a professional support system in place, which will provide them with help, support and resources.

"Precious Life are resolved to work towards a solution that loves and protects both mother and baby. Once again we call on the Health Minister to immediately establish perinatal hospice services for parents who have received a poor or difficult prenatal diagnosis for their baby,” said Smyth.

 

Contact:

Justice Minister David Ford
Department of Justice
Stormont Estate
Belfast, Northern Ireland
BT4 3SG
Phone:(028) 9076 3000
Email: via website (http://www.dojni.gov.uk/contact-us.htm)


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80% of parents who have an unborn child with spina bifida choose abortion. But Chad Judice (pictured with Eli) knows that life is worth it.
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Abortion? No way. Dad says son with spina bifida is a ‘gift’ to the family.

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By Dustin Siggins

What is the most pro-life, pro-God influence in your life? According to Catholic author and speaker Chad Judice, his five-year old, disabled son has been a tremendous source of happiness and faith for even the hardest of hearts.

In an op-ed published in The New York Post, Judice writes that when he and his wife found out their unborn son Elijah had spina bifida, they were offered the option of abortion. While they chose life, it didn't stop them from fearing the worst for their careers, eldest child, and Eli.

"That evening...Ashley cried as she read to me from the literature we’d been given," writes Judice. "It said 80 percent of parents who receive a spina bifida diagnosis choose abortion."

"And it told us that our son might have learning disabilities and be paralyzed from the waist down, unable to ever walk."

According to WemMD.com, the two most common forms of spina bifida have few, if any effects, on those who have them. However, the most rare and most aggressive form of the disability can result in significant problems for life:

  • Little or no feeling in their legs, feet, or arms, so they may not be able to move those parts of the body.
  • Bladder or bowel problems, such as leaking urine or having a hard time passing stools.
  • Fluid buildup in the brain (hydrocephalus). Even when it is treated, this may cause seizures, learning problems, or vision problems.
  • A curve in their spine, such as scoliosis.

Eli's form of spina bifida was severe, but -- as it turned out -- manageable, writes Judice. Despite surgeries and "medical challenges," he was out of the hospital within thirty days, though seizures and surgeries would continue to challenge the family. At five-and-a-half, he is entering kindergarten, learning to walk with modern technology, and "his intelligence is at or above average, and he's very talkative."

But perhaps the greatest miracle of all, Judice says, is the effect Eli has had on those who are outside of the family. His story has helped "some pregnant mothers...to reject abortion," and "rekindle the dormant faith of some...drawing them into a life with more room for God and family."

One of those rekindled Christians was a man who, after years in prison, prayed for Eli "as he recited The Lord's Prayer." According to Judice, "it was the first time he’d prayed in 30 years."

Since Eli's birth, Judice has written two books about his son and their family. "Waiting for Eli: A Father's Journey from Fear to Faith" was the first, and has received praise from Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. According to Pavone, it is "an inspiring story of faith, hope, love, and the power of prayer."

"The world judges the value of human life by physical perfection, but God sees things differently. To Him, we are perfectly lovable in our imperfection. Uplifting in its reverence for human life in its most fragile stages, WAITING FOR ELI will encourage pro-life activists everywhere, from the most seasoned to the newly initiated."

Also unstinting in praise was the Chair of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop Daniel Cardinal Dinardo, who writes for Judice's website that the book "chronicles [Judice's] spiritual journey from fear of one’s personal limitations to self-abandonment to the divine mercy of God’s providence."

The second book, "Eli's Reach: On the Value of Human Life and the Power of Prayer," received the "Best Book by Small Publisher" award in 2013 by the Catholic Press Association.

"I think of Eli as God’s special gift to my family," Judice wrote in the Post. "And as I share about him, Eli’s story softens hearts and brings people to a greater appreciation of the beauty and sacredness of life."


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