Conservatives Seize On Hugely Flawed Study About Same-Sex Parents

Donald Paul Sullins defending Mark Regnerus’ study at the 2013 Society of Catholic Social Scientists Conference. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/FRANCISCAN UNIVERSITY OF STEUBENVILLE
Donald Paul Sullins defending Mark Regnerus’ study at the 2013 Society of Catholic Social Scientists Conference. CREDIT: YOUTUBE/FRANCISCAN UNIVERSITY OF STEUBENVILLE

Conservatives are excitedly promoting a new study that supposedly reveals negative outcomes for the children of same-sex parents. Like the infamously flawed Mark Regnerus study rushed out two years ago, the new study seems timed to impact the Supreme Court’s upcoming consideration of marriage equality for same-sex couples. It suffers, however, from some of the same flaws and biases as Regnerus’ study, and doesn’t actually support the argument against marriage equality that it tries to make.

The new study comes from Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and sociology professor at Catholic University of America. Sullins is a fellow of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, a project of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, and a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Columbus, which has funneled millions of dollars into fighting marriage equality over the past decade. In 2010, he co-wrote a study suggesting that female homosexuality was somehow connected to growing up in a broken home, and when he has written about same-sex marriage, he uses scare quotes around the word “marriage.”

Sullins conducted an analysis of data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) that had been collected from 1997–2013. He concluded that information about the 512 same-sex parents identified in the study demonstrates that their children have more emotional problems compared to couples raised by their biological different-sex couples. That these children fare worse, he concludes, “justifies social and policy concerns about differences between family structures, including between opposite-sex and same-sex families.” In other words, same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry because they make inferior parents.

One of the first major flaws, however, is the fact that Sullins has no information about whether the same-sex couples were actually married. As he notes, “Almost all opposite-sex parents who are raising joint biological offspring are in intact marriages, but very few, if any, same-sex parents were married during the period under observation.” The same-sex couples were instead defined as “those persons whose reported spouse or cohabiting partner was of the same sex as themselves.” No conclusions can actually be drawn about the impacts of legalizing same-sex marriage because the study, by its own admission, collected no data about same-sex marriage or its effect on children.


Regnerus himself provides an overview of the research. In his attempt to defend it, however, he in turn reveals that it also has the very same flaws as his own study. In particular, the NHIS similarly contains no information about family formation. Sullins notes that many of the children had a biological connection to one of the same-sex parents, but it’s unknown if these are from prior relationships, which would suggest their negative outcomes are related to a broken home instead of having two parents of the same sex. Regnerus used the same conflation; only two of the children in his study were actually raised from birth by same-sex couples and they did not exhibit the same negative outcomes as those children who had parents that separated before one entered a same-sex relationship. Incidentally, Sullins has likewise defended Regenerus’ conclusions about the supposed inferiority “gay and lesbian families,” ignoring the significance of this flawed conflation.

Regnerus notes that another analysis of the same NHIS data found “that children in same-sex families are quite similar to children in married couple families,” but he argues that what matters is “how scholars present and interpret the data.” He proceeds to admit that one of the ways to make children “appear to fare fine (if not better)” with same-sex parents is to control for factors like relationship instability and residential instability. Indeed, the only way that he got his negative results was to not control for the fact that most of the children in his study experienced relationship instability before one of their parents entered a same-sex relationship.

As a vehicle for opposing same-sex marriage, the study severely lacks integrity, as its political positions don’t jibe with its data. “Biology matters,” Regnerus asserts, and Sullins emphasizes that his study identifies “the importance of common biological parentage for optimum child well-being.” Nowhere, however, does Sullins or Regnerus suggest that this has any policy implications for adoption or foster care by different-sex couples. It might be a hard case to make given Sullins has two adopted children of his own.

Furthermore, the study also found, “Child emotional problems in opposite-sex families are highest for single parent families and lowest with married joint biological parents. Compared to single parents, children with same-sex parents have less than twice the risk of emotional problems, but they are at almost four times the risk of emotional problems when compared to children residing with married biological parents.” Besides the counterintuitive finding that having two same-sex parents would result in outcomes that much worse than a single parent, the study then ignores the concerns it did find for single parenting. Neither Sullins nor Regnerus makes any argument against single people having children or adopting. Not a single state currently prohibits single people from adopting, but several nevertheless have prohibitions against same-sex couples jointly adopting.

Conservatives praise these studies for their large samples, eagerly highlighting their negative results while ignore the distortions required to arrive at them. A recent large study from Australia with a similarly-sized pool of same-sex parents who had actually raised children together as couples found that the children have quite positive outcomes. Indeed, there are ample studies that consistently justify the medical community’s support for same-sex couples to have equal access to marriage and joint adoption for their families. As Regnerus himself pointed out, when researchers don’t conflate same-sex families with unstable homes, the results are positive.