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Learning from the past and understanding the present

By Sven Trenholm - posted Tuesday, 26 September 2017


Debates about changes to family occurred a half century ago. Then, most social science researchers considered liberalising divorce laws, on balance, to be positive. Those arguing otherwise were branded regressive traditionalists. Yet today, social scientists recognise the harm these changes cause to many children and society as a whole.

A new change is in the offing, with the push to legalise same-sex marriage. Many researchers claim the effect of same-sex parenting on child well-being is no different from opposite-sex parenting, and may be even better – an argument the mainstream media trumpets.

But research findings overall are less clear. Most studies supportive of same-sex parenting use weak research methods, such as convenience sampling using volunteers from the gay community who know the research aims. The balance of evidence from the strongest research, with large representative sampling, does not support same-sex parenting.

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A look at US research provides some important background to these issues. There is strong evidence that the US sociological and psychological establishment has taken a firm ideological stance favouring legalising same-sex marriage. The American Psychological Association, for example, has a clear policy opposing "heterosexist" research. Indeed, several recent studies provide detailed evidence of bias about research on same-sex parenting, framed as a battle for the integrity of the social science research enterprise.

Issues of bias extend from academia to the media. In 2012, for example, Mark Regnerus, a University of Texas sociologist, conducted a randomised study based on a huge population sample. He found that adult children raised wholly or partly in same-sex parent households fared worse on several measures – including education, depression and employment status – than those from families with opposite-sex parents. Academia and the media immediately excoriated the study and its author – even though a university inquiry found no evidence of academic misconduct.

In contrast, in 2014, Michael LaCour, a UCLA graduate student, and Donald Green, a Columbia University political science professor, published a study in the prestigious journal Science. LaCour's findings suggested that voters opposed to same-sex marriage would change their views significantly after a brief conversation with a gay canvasser. This study was lauded almost immediately, unlike the Regnerus research. The New York Times and US National Public Radio covered LaCour's work positively, and LaCour was even offered a professorship at Princeton University when he completed his PhD.

However Science was later embarrassed, being forced to retract the study after another graduate student discovered that LaCour's data did not stand up to scrutiny. The now notorious study has been called one of the biggest research frauds in recent history. While Regnerus was criticised for his Catholic faith, LaCour's openly homosexual orientation received little or no mention in the mainstream press.

Then in 2015, Paul Sullins, an associate professor of sociology at the American Catholic University, published a gold standard, randomised study drawn from a large US survey, in a journal noted for its rigorous peer-review. He found that children raised by same-sex couples reported significantly poorer emotional health than those in traditional families, despite experiencing similar rates of bullying. Yet a prominent US magazine dismissed the study as "pseudo-science" and accused the author of bias because of his Catholic faith.

In contrast, in 2014 Simon Crouch, a public health doctor and honorary research fellow at the University of Melbourne, found children of same-sex parents scored "higher than population samples" on well-being measures. The ABC and theSydney Morning Herald reviewed his findings positively, largely ignoring the study's weak basis. Crouch had actively recruited same-sex couple parents, who knew the study's aims and who reported on the well-being of their own children. Crouch himself was raising children with his male partner.

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Taken together a clear pro-same-sex marriage bias is suggested: Both academia and the media play up findings in support of same-sex parenting and reflexively play down and heavily criticise studies finding cause for concern. Yet an analysis of the methodology of much current research suggests we cannot reasonably assume that same-sex parenting is no different from or better than opposite-sex parenting – rather, the reverse.

With the current push to legalise same-sex marriage and increase the incidence of same-sex parenting, Australia stands at the edge of another sea change to family – genderless marriage. As with the legalising of easy divorce, children may be paying the price for what is largely adult wants. Is history repeating itself?

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This opinion piece represents a distillation of five plus years of personal reflections on the academic and media discourse around the research on same-sex parenting.

You can read more details on the author's website What we really know.



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About the Author

Sven is a research academic and Lecturer in Education. Before coming to Australia, he lived and worked in Canada, the US and the UK.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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