Gay parents study: Is the Witherspoon Institute playing politics with the research?

Have the study’s funders manipulated the findings for their own political gain?

Family looking at a photo album.
An “intact biological family” in the study is one where children remain with both birth parents until 18

Photo by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/iStockphotos.

Last week, Slate published an article by Mark Regnerus about his study of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships. According to Regnerus, the study shows different (and generally worse) outcomes for children whose parents engaged in such relationships, compared to adults who lived with their married, biological parents throughout childhood. Slate also published a critique of the study—and a defense of the data—by William Saletan.

Both writers had more to say, and they agreed to continue the exchange here. What follows is the second part of their dialogue.

Hi, Mark. You’ve taken a lot of abuse over this study, and it’s commendable of you to come forward and answer the criticisms in a spirit of transparency. Your candor can help to dispel the overreaction.

I hear what you’re saying about stable same-sex relationships. You didn’t get a big enough sample of them to discern significant differences vis-à-vis intact biological families, or a lack thereof. To me, that’s the study’s most disturbing finding: We finally have a nationally representative picture of the lives of gay parents over the last 40 years (using the broadest definition—anyone who had a same-sex relationship), and it’s a landscape of tumult and debris. The causes and solutions can be debated—my instincts on this question are in the Rauch/Sullivan camp—but your data force us to acknowledge that the planned, successful same-sex households featured in rosy media reports are a tiny minority of what children of gay parents experienced from the 1970s onward.

The six cases in your sample where the mom and her lesbian partner stayed together with the child for 10 years or more weren’t enough, statistically, to compare to intact biological families. If I understand you correctly, you considered lowering the standard to couples who stayed together for five years. But that would get you only 18 cases, so you had to look at lowering the standard further. If you included cases where the mom and her partner stayed together “for at least a good share of a year or more,” that would get you 81 cases. But by that point, we’re talking about 81 cases which, on aggregate, scored poorly on child outcomes compared to intact biological (IBF) families. As you point out, these 81 cases didn’t score much better than the overall LM sample, which included all the moms who had lesbian relationships, regardless of whether they spent any time raising the child with a female partner. So you reported outcomes for the whole LM sample.

You argue that the information we can learn from the LM-IBF comparison, while inferior to a comparison between stable gay households and stable straight households, deserves a hearing. I agree. But part of that hearing is scrutiny of how you aggregated the data. Each time you lowered the standard of duration for the same-sex households that would be compared to the IBF group, you enlarged the gay sample by increasing the ratio of unstable to stable households. Surely you could predict, as a student of family structure, that adding unstable households to the sample would worsen the average outcome. Isn’t that why you undertook the study in the first place—because the hypothesis of “no difference” between gay stepfamilies, gay adoptive families, and intact biological households defied the known effects of instability? And, as you note, the better outcomes among the long-term couples in your LM sample indicated that “the longer the household stay of the two-LMs, the better they appear at face value.”

You’ve been careful to note that the LM group doesn’t represent these long-term couples, nor does the very low prevalence of such couples in the time frame of the study (children raised from 1971 to 2012) tell us their prevalence today. But the Witherspoon Institute, which financed the study, isn’t being so careful. Witherspoon has set up a website,, to frame your work in terms that can be deployed in the gay marriage debate. Witherspoon’s summary repeatedly phrases your findings in the present tense. Witherspoon’s newsletter says the study shows that “the safest and most nurturing place for children continues to be the intact, biological family, particularly in comparison with families formed by people in same-sex relationships.”

Is that accurate? Does the study compare intact biological families to “families formed by people in same-sex relationships”? Does it show that the intact biological family “continues” to be safer for children than does a family headed by a gay parent? For that matter, does the study show any difference, in terms of child outcomes, between intact biological families (defined in your paper as married households in which the child lived with both biological parents from birth to age 18) and equivalent gay families—that is, families headed by same-sex couples in which children lived from birth to age 18? It looks to me as though the answer to all three questions is no. But the study’s funder is claiming that the answer to at least two of these questions is yes. And no one but you can definitely set the record straight.