What the Australian Study Really Tells Us About Gay Parenting
The Right is in a flap this month about a new Australian parenting study that shows gay parents raise children who are as healthy as those from straight parent families, but if anything the Right’s reaction is actually more edifying than the study itself.
The study employed data from the cross-sectional survey known as the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families (2012). The survey used a sample of 390 patients who self-identified as same-sex attracted and who had children aged up to 17-years-old. Of them 315 same-sex parents ultimately contributed to the analysis, which led to data on around 500 children. The ratio of female and male parents was as follows: 80 percent of the children had female parents, while 18 percent were raised by a male couple.
You will have noted that the sample was self-identifying. We’ll discuss why that has become important below. Regardless what the researchers found was that, when comparing to national data on average heterosexual parent families, same-sex parent families tended to raise children who scored about 6 percent higher than the general population when it came to things like general health and sense of family cohesion.
Why might this be? Well same-sex parent families in the sample tended to be more affluent than the national average (and, again, we’ll talk about that more below), and we might guess based on other research that they probably waited until they were financially stable before having children, therefore they could create an optimal environment.
Unsurprisingly though, in most other regards the children of same-sex parent families scored roughly the same in things like mood, behavior, and also in mental health and self-esteem. This, the researchers say, is despite the fact that anti-gay stigma may still affect many children of same-sex parent families, which in turn can as they get older impact a young person’s mental and sometimes physical health. What we’re likely seeing, then, is that same-sex parent families are able to mitigate the hostilities that they might face and raise children who are roughly the same in terms of wellbeing as heterosexual families.
“It appears that same-sex parent families get along well and this has a positive impact on health,” said researcher Dr. Simon Crouch of the University of Melbourne in comments made to NBC. “We know that same-sex attracted parents are more likely to share child care and work responsibilities more equitably than heterosexual parent families, based more on skills rather than gender roles. This appears to be contributing to a more harmonious household and having a positive impact on child health.”
As you might expect, the Religious Right has taken a dislike to this study. In fact, they’ve decided it is flawed and in fact misleading research. They charge that, as we mentioned above, the research is meaningless because the participant families were not randomly selected but rather volunteered data themselves. This, they say, meant that same-sex couples with an agenda could have biased the research. They also say that because Crouch himself identifies as gay, he was not qualified to carry out this research.
In particular, criticism has come from American researcher Mark Regnerus.
You may be familiar with Regnerus’ work as he is the lead researcher behind the highly dubious and flawed (his own department’s word choice, not mine) New Family Structures Study which, using a national data sample, was billed as showing that same-sex attracted parents are worse for children. Except that it didn’t. By Regnerus’ own admission the study relied on a sample where the parents were divorced and only one of them identified as gay and sometimes not even that–some had just had one same-sex relationship in their lives. We know that divorced children often face hardship. Regnerus’ study appeared to imply that the hardship was a result of having a same-sex attracted parent, and Rengerus has allowed his research to be represented as such and to attack same-sex marriage in places as high profiled as the Supreme Court of the United States.
So what is Regnerus’ criticism of the Australian study? He believes the population sample is biased because same-sex parents with an agenda might have volunteered precisely to affect the results. “To compare the results from such an unusual sample with that of a population-based sample of everyone else is just suspect science,” he writes.
We could laugh at how ironic this is given the problems with his own population samples. Yet it may surprise you to learn that we can agree with him that it would be better if this was a random national sample. Of course it would. However, because Australia does not collect data in a way that would allow for such an analysis, this study works within the parameters it is allowed. The fact is the researchers recognize and highlight the drawbacks of this in their methodology. That, contrary to what Regnerus might think, is actually good science.
Regnerus has a great deal of waffle on this subject, but we’ll settle for looking at his main criticism because I think it’s worth discussing.
Regnerus takes exception to the fact that the children in the study were conceived through planned medical treatment. While it is true that not all same-sex parent families may have planned for having a child, say where one parent was involved in another relationship where they conceived a child, for Regnerus to claim as he does that this research is virtually meaningless for the wider gay parenting population because it involves only “elites” who could afford fertility treatment disregards the fact that the research actually specifically notes that same-sex couples have to be financially stable in order to have and raise children:
Higher relative income in same-sex families is not surprising however, given that there is often a need to engage in costly and complex medical procedures in order to create a family where the parents are same-sex attracted. Children with male index parents are more commonly born through surrogacy arrangements. However, with commercial surrogacy illegal throughout Australia, and altruistic surrogacy poorly established, these arrangements often take place overseas, and thus parents with lower incomes may be less likely to avail this method.
While Regnerus’ may think this helps his critique, it actually dramatically undercuts him.
Lately he’s been busy arguing in a Michigan federal court that same-sex marriages shouldn’t be legalized because based on his research only heterosexual married families provide the best environment for child rearing. It’s worth noting that, just as many in the scientific field have not been impressed with his research, nor was the judge in this case who in quite biting terms said, “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”
Regnerus’ agenda in testifying before the court was to keep marriage out of the hands of same-sex couples, and in so doing he wants to define them out of being able to access the state and federal benefits of marriage that support child rearing. You may have guessed where the rub lies on this.
He complains that there are only financially well-off families in the above Australian study and that it can’t give us a true picture of same-sex parenting ability or what the average same-sex parent family is really like. The fact is, it probably does give us a fairly good grasp of same-sex parenting because it’s precisely the discrimination that Regnerus supports that is keeping same-sex couples who aren’t affluent out of being able to raise children because without assistance, and with all the extra hardships of not having their partnerships recognized, they can’t afford it.
Yet, perhaps the best answers to all this and other criticisms comes from the lead researcher himself. On the subject of the parent sample, Crouch points out in a recent blog post that, besides Australia not handling national data in the same way as the US, there’s a serious flaw in the criticism:
It is argued that only parents with a vested interest in promoting positive health outcomes will volunteer. While this cannot be discounted as a possibility there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Interestingly, no commentator on the Right has been able to provide said evidence despite the fact that the methodology and protocol for the study have been published. This criticism, therefore, should stop there until such a time as that proof is offered.
As to how outrageous people seem to find the notion that the children of same-sex parents might score slightly higher on some measures, Crouch points out that this happened in only three of the 29 measures. Besides, the study was never to prove that same-sex parents are better but to assess whether they can provide stable environments for child rearing, which as the biggest survey of its kind anywhere in the world is an important inquiry. It also tallies with other, smaller research but it is worth saying, as the researchers themselves note, that the study is limited.
That to one side, Crouch then turns his attention to attacks made on him based on his sexuality. He points out that while he was the lead researcher, his entire team is diverse and made of many heterosexuals from many different backgrounds. He then goes for the metaphorical throat on that criticism:
To suggest that my family situation is of relevance implies that no heterosexual researcher can produce unbiased work on heterosexual families. Or that any non-Caucasian researcher would be able to objectively conduct research on racial discrimination and child health.
In essence, the fuss over this study has never been about the data. Really it is a reaction from the Right to the sound trashing the Regnerus study rightly received. That research was supposed to be a weapon in the court battle against same-sex marriage, but when its flaws were exposed it became impotent.
What we’re seeing now is that the Right is trying to blunt any research that shows same-sex parenting in a positive light. Discount what this data shows us about same-sex parents if you must, but it shows the Right is acting out of desperation and is far removed from the facts.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.