“The kids are OK: it is discrimination, not same-sex parents, that harms children.” This headline in the Medical Journal of Australia was repeated around the country in the middle of a heated national debate over legalising same-sex marriage.
The article looked impressive: 13 authors from Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute presenting a “consensus of the peer-reviewed research”. This is, according to the authors, that: “children raised in same-sex parented families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as children raised by heterosexual couple parents.”
Indeed, “Some research has indicated that children with same-sex parents do better [emphasis added] than other children. In addition to equivalent social and educational outcomes, these studies conclude that children raised by same-sex couples show better psychological adjustment, and greater open-mindedness towards sexual, gender and family diversity.”
However, a closer look at the sketchy data presented in the MJA article suggests that this is utterly irresponsible scholarship.
In a tight vote, a widely-publicised article in Australia’s leading medical magazine could tip the balance of public opinion. The authors had a duty to their profession and the public to present a critique which is as up-to-date and comprehensive as possible.
In fact, they ignored recent studies of the “consensus” which argued that the kids might not be OK. The only article cited which cast doubt on this consensus was the so-called Regnerus study published in 2012. Dr Regnerus was abused so mercilessly for questioning the consensus that the Melbourne academics may have thought that no one would dare break ranks ever again. In a field as contested as same-sex parenting, it’s easy to be swayed by bias. But it appears that the authors of this brief study were not so much swayed as swept away by a tsunami of attachment.
In any case, some very able scholars have kept asking awkward questions about the “consensus” over the past five years. The articles are on the public record and readily available. Could someone explain how the Melbourne researchers could have overlooked these two articles published only a year ago?
Schumm points out that most studies have involved relatively small, non-random samples; that most involved families with extremely high income and education, especially for gay fathers; that most omitted assessment of delayed gratification, impulsivity, emotional regulation, self-control, willpower, or time preference – qualities which foreshadow adult outcomes better than open-mindedness toward gender diversity.
Schumm concludes that “Much of the literature can be summarized in favor of the 'no differences' hypothesis if one only considers one-time studies of either young children or children who have spent very few years in a same-sex parental household. At the same time, if one focuses on either longitudinal studies or studies of adolescent or adult children from same-sex families, then there is much more evidence not in favor of the 'no differences' hypothesis.”
This is a major meta-analysis of the empirical evidence on same-sex parenting over the previous 35 years. It found that “There were negative associations between living with gay or lesbian parents and several outcomes”.
However, the author, Thomas Schofield, of Ohio State University, acknowledges that the field of same-sex parenting is a minefield. For one thing, gay and lesbian parents are “a small and hard-to-reach” group. Most of the studies, therefore, focus on “Caucasian, female, middle-class, urban, and well-educated” parents. Since most same-sex couples in the US are socio-economically disadvantaged, this means that the data may be skewed.
When are the kids OK? The Melbourne researchers do not pose this question but it is important. “Living with a gay or lesbian parent was associated with positive outcomes for younger children and negative outcomes for older children,” Schofield notes. This should give supporters of same-sex marriage pause. Parenting is about raising healthy, well-adjusted adults, not Peter Pans.
And what about bias? Schofield does not accuse colleagues of deliberately putting their fingers on the scales, but his analysis came up with some interesting correlations. “The allegiance of the authors to the no difference hypothesis [that hetero- and homosexual parenting are the same] was consistently associated with effect size.”
Schofield ends his meta-analysis with a plea for deeper and more robust research:
Regardless of social and political allegiances, ideally scientists strive to support parents, including gay and lesbian parents, by providing them accurate information about what the data show. It is important that scientists supplement this information with equally accurate conclusions. As one early researcher of differences between the children of gay or lesbian and heterosexual parents advised, “It is imperative that decisions that affect the lives of children be made on the basis of empirical data rather than assumptions or personal emotions”
How could 13 skilled researchers overlook these substantial challenges to their hypothesis? One possible answer is that they are all associated with the same institution. If they have been swimming together in the same fishbowl for many years, it might be hard to imagine that other fishbowls – or oceans – exist.
The scientific method doesn’t work unless researchers engage with competing hypotheses. This highly politicised article in the Medical Journal of Australia turned a blind eye to articles which challenged the authors’ own bias. You can prove anything you like if you choose your own facts.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.