A MercatorNet contributor from the United States has been dragged into Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. Figures from research by sociologist Paul Sullins, of the Catholic University of America, were used on an anti-same-sex marriage poster sighted in a laneway in the Melbourne CBD. Only one poster has surfaced, but it has created a furore. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had to intervene to “deplore disrespectful, abusive language whether it is directed at young gay people, or people of other religions, or people of other races”.

Dr Sullins, who is also a Catholic priest, had nothing to do with the poster, but the statistics were drawn from research he published last year in which he found that children of gay parents suffer disproportionately more abuse.

The Guardian told its readers that this was “incorrect” and, like the ABC, dismissed Sullins’s findings.

But since the welfare of children is a key thread in the same-sex marriage debate, this is worth investigating further, no matter how inflammatory it may be.

Why was the research deemed incorrect? Because a website at Columbia Law School, in New York, lists 75 studies which support the “no difference” theory – that same-sex parenting is no worse than mum-and-dad parenting – and only 4 studies which found some negative outcomes. An article by Sullins was one of the four.

While 75 to 4 sounds like an overwhelming consensus, the reality is distinctly underwhelming. As Sullins pointed out in an article last year, nearly all of the 70+ studies are based on convenience studies – small groups recruited from sympathisers. “Asking patrons of a local LGBT bookstore or gay friends network about child outcomes is like surveying a Bible study about religiosity: the rosy picture is misleading about the larger population,” he wrote. Of the four sceptical studies, three used large population samples, giving this dissenting research weight and credibility.

Back to the troubling statistics cited on the poster.

Dr Sullins told an ABC journalist yesterday in an email that “While I strongly denounce the pejorative language and fearmongering in the poster, the statistics it cites are essentially accurate.” His article was based on a huge longitudinal survey of the state of young Americans’ health, the Add Health study:

92% of respondents who had parents of the same sex reported being abused as a child, compared to 58% of children with man-woman parents. 

This is based on a retrospective question, asked when the respondents were age 22 on average, about whether, before age 12, a parent or caregiver had “slapped, hit or kicked you,” said “things that hurt your feelings or made you feel you were not wanted or loved,” or “touched you in a sexual way, forced you to touch him or her in a sexual way, or forced you to have sex relations.” 

You can also see that … when the respondents were at average age 28, 72% were obese, compared to only 37% of persons with man-woman parents.

In any debate, it is important to ask the right questions, not just to repeat the same tired ideas and statistics over and over. The distinctive feature of Sullins’s research was asking adults who had been raised by same-sex parents about their upbringing. Isn’t this more pertinent to this year’s debate than the opinion of lesbian mothers of how their children are faring in kindergarten? They have had time to reflect on their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood and to speak for themselves. And it seems than a number of them are not happy.

Dr Sullins can expect a full-throated roar of “No” from the “consensus”. But he is confident that his analysis is robust and that he is asking the right questions:

The social science associations will respond with the laughably false claim the “no study has ever found child harm with same-sex parents”. The body of “research” they cite to support this idea is a joke, a body of denial rather than a body of discovery.  Point in fact: no study cited by them has ever even asked a question about parental child abuse. 

 Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet