Why The Most Often Cited Anti-Gay ‘Expert’ Has Nothing Useful To Say About Same-Sex Marriage

Mark Regnerus
Mark Regnerus

Mark Regnerus was arguably the star witness called by the state of Michigan as officials there defended the state’s bans on adoption and marriage for same-sex couples over the past few weeks. His New Family Structures Study (NFSS) concluded that children whose parents had ever had a same-sex romantic relationship at some point demonstrated poorer developmental outcomes than those with biological different-sex parents whose relationship remained intact. Though that carefully worded conclusion is valid, its application to marriage equality and adoption rights for same-sex couples is negligible, as he actually demonstrated during two days of testimony last week.

There has been no shortage of criticism over the way conservative groups — and Regnerus himself — have used the NFSS results to generalize about same-sex marriage. Not only did the American Sociological Association thoroughly debunk his conclusions before the U.S. Supreme Court, but his own academic department at the University of Texas at Austin even felt the need to distance itself from his “fundamentally flawed” testimony. Besides the fact that his conclusions are not generalizable, over 100 studies have actually found positive results for the children of same-sex parents. Though Michigan called him to support its anti-gay laws, he actually revealed on the stand just how inapplicable his findings are to that cause. Here is an in-depth look at his testimony, taken directly from court transcripts.

Mark Regnerus Opposes Marriage Equality Regardless Of His Study

Given that Regnerus has spoken many times at the behest of various anti-gay groups, his bias against marriage equality is not exactly news, but he did make it quite clear that he has a definition of marriage that is incongruent with marriage equality: “I think that marriage is essentially a union between a man and a woman. It’s intended to be permanent.” When asked whether marriage should include same-sex couples, he said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” basing his opinion on an “historically stable” definition of “marriage.”


Regnerus asserted that his position on marriage, however, did not impact his research. In fact, he admitted that his position on marriage isn’t tied to child outcomes. Under cross-examination, he was asked whether he favors excluding low-income people, low-educated couples, or any other “groups that are known from the scientific research to raise children who fare more poorly” from marriage, but he said that he does not. Instead, he only opposes same-sex couples marrying because the science of their parenting is, in his opinion, “new.”

Though he defined the three core components of marriage as “permanence, exclusivity, and an expectation of producing children,” Regnerus also indicated under cross-examination that stability does not actually inform his beliefs about who should be allowed to get married. He acknowledged that some groups have higher rates of divorce, including African-Americans, interracial couples, and people who have previously divorced, but said that he does not oppose allowing any of those groups to marry.

In other words, Regnerus doesn’t oppose allowing people to marry if their children have poorer outcomes, and he doesn’t oppose allowing couples to marry based on their stability. He opposes it because of his personal religious beliefs.

Mark Regnerus Has No Opinion On Same-Sex Adoption

The Michigan case is unique because it’s about both marriage and adoption, and though Regnerus was summoned to provide his expert opinion “regarding outcomes for children being raised in same sex households,” Regnerus said that he had no opinions related to adoption based on that expertise.


During cross-examination, Regnerus was specifically asked, “Do you have an opinion on whether lesbian and gay couples be allowed to adopt children?” to which he replied that he did not. He also said that he had no strong opinion about “whether children would be better off staying in foster care than being adopted by two parents of the same sex.” He was then asked about the specific situation in this case, a lesbian couple raising children together who are prohibited from both becoming each of their children’s parents. Regnerus did not have any opinion as to whether a child would be better off if both parents could legally adopt their children instead of just one.

Mark Regnerus’ Study Has Nothing To Say About Committed Same-Sex Couples

Throughout his testimony, Regnerus admitted to all of the claims against the validity of his research’s conclusions. Here are a few highlights that he acknowledged in court:

  • Only two of the children he studied were raised from birth by same-sex couples, and their outcomes “looked pretty good.”
  • Many of the children in the study, including about half of those who said their mother had a same-sex relationship, never even lived in the same household as that same-sex couple.
  • Regnerus intentionally did not control for family stability. Though the majority of the respondents were the product of a “failed heterosexual union,” he compared them against children whose biological different-sex parents were together through their entire childhood.
  • The study reflects an “earlier generation,” which Regnerus acknowledged meant that none of the now-grown children that he studied could have had same-sex parents that were married.

No Study That Meets Regnerus’ Standard Could Be Feasibly Paid For

The number of subjects in Regnerus’ study that are actually relevant to conversations on same-sex marriage and adoption (two) is actually less than have been used in the 100+ other studies that have found positive results for same-sex parenting. Still, he argues that his results are more generalizable because he pooled them from a much wider random sample instead of relying on a “snowball” convenience sample.

Under cross-examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer challenged Regnerus to calculate how big a study would be necessary to actually guarantee a sizable pool of same-sex families. Screening a sample of 15,000 yielded two and cost $415,000, so to find 50 would hypothetically require a sample of 375,000. Rather than calculate what that would cost, Regnerus offered that the project could be tacked on to an existing children’s study, but he’s aware of no effort to do so.


Even still, Regnerus offered a cart-before-the-horse sentiment. He believes that it’s “prudent to collect more data before one makes any major conclusions” on legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Without data on how children are impacted by same-sex marriage, Michigan should continue to limit marriage as between a man and a woman. Of course, without allowing same-sex couples to marry, it would be impossible to actually study the impact it has on children. Thus, Regnerus is setting a standard by which marriage equality and adoption equality simply never happen.

Regnerus Admits: Banning Same-Sex Marriage Doesn’t Protect Children

Even though Regnerus has a personal bias against marriage equality, no opinions on adoption by same-sex couples, a study that doesn’t actually support the conclusions people cite it for, and an impossible standard for any probability study to ever confirm what a consensus on social scientists already believe, he did offer ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper a pretty clear conclusion about the effect on children of banning same-sex marriage:

COOPER: Now, you recognize that same sex couples have children either through adoption or assisted reproduction including in states like Michigan where they can’t marry.


COOPER: And you recognize that excluding same sex couples from marriage does not prevent them from having children in these ways.

REGNERUS: That is true.

COOPER: And you’re not aware of any data showing that allowing same sex couples to marry reduces the number of children who are raised in heterosexual biological parent families; is that right?

REGNERUS: I’m unaware of that.

COOPER: So, in fact, you acknowledged, did you not that you don’t actually know whether the exclusion of same sex couples from marriage actually does anything to promote what you consider to be the ideal environment for children.

REGNERUS: Right, we don’t know except that it’s an open question. Moving forward there’s more data to collect here.

COOPER: But you don’t know.

REGNERUS: I don’t know.

The whole hooplah over Regnerus’ study is the idea that it somehow proves that banning same-sex marriage helps protect children, but he doesn’t even claim to know that to be the case.

It’s unclear how much the state of Michigan spent on Regnerus’ testimony, nor on the other experts they brought in, like Douglas Allen, who admitted his belief that “without repentance,” gay people are going to Hell. However much it was, there doesn’t seem to be anything in Regnerus’ testimony that actually supports their case.

(HT: Kathleen Perrin)