Mark Regnerus is not the most popular guy right now. Last Sunday, the journal Social Science Research made available his paper claiming that children raised by same-sex couples turn out to have more problems as adults than those raised by heterosexual parents. Readers reacted swiftly, his work inspiring legions of formal and informal peer reviews. A key concern that many identified, correctly, was that what Regnerus’ paper really compared were stable versus unstable households, regardless of the sexual orientation of the parents (for a clear and concise version of this argument, I’d recommend this piece in Discovery News.)
Over the past week, conversations about the political fallout of Regnerus’ article abounded. The Daily Beast reported that the study provoked a “political war,” with socially conservative pundits using it to affirm their beliefs that gay and lesbian couples should not be parents, while those on the left condemned it as an attempt to undermine same-sex rights. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin went on record saying, “Because of the serious flaws, this so-called study doesn’t match 30 years of scientific research that shows overwhelmingly that children raised by parents who are LGBT do equally as well as their counterparts raised by heterosexual parents.” Many of the reviews, in favor or against Regnerus’ piece, operated in a similar framework of evaluating what the study means for gay marriage and same-sex parenting.
Maybe we should take a step back.
In medicine, we learn that it is valuable to order a test only if it would change our decision-making in terms of care. Otherwise, the test is considered a waste. While the same litmus test doesn’t apply to science research across the board, I think it comes a bit closer in the realm of social science work, which is what Regnerus’ study was. Suppose for a moment that all the critiques of his methodology did not apply, and that his was a robust study. Would its conclusions change your opinion on gay and lesbian couples having children?
If your answer is yes, I’m afraid you have your work cut out for you. By saying empirical data on who rears more stable children is a factor in deciding who should be able to have children, you would be scientifically remiss in stopping at gay and lesbian couples. Rather, you would have to study all groups who want to have children, and compare and contrast outcomes. By race. By religion. By age. By political affiliation. By socioeconomic background. And the list goes on and on. This task becomes even more difficult when you consider that drawing lines between groups can be an arbitrary thing in the first place, and how you decide to draw those lines can impact your results. I have absolutely no doubt you would find data revealing differences between other groups – ones that have no restrictions whatsoever on having children, and who are not under political scrutiny for wanting to.
So now you face a dilemma. If you want to say that differences between groups constitute a legitimate argument for limiting parenthood rights, you don’t have a leg to stand on if you want limit gay and lesbians’ rights, but no one else’s.
What we have to remember is that there is a big difference between an empirical finding and a policy recommendation. Data can be used to show many things we might not like, including differences between groups. But would we, or should we, legislate based on that? Infringe on anyone’s rights? To do so would be to reduce an individual and his/her potential to the group he/she happened to be born into. To place limits on a person’s rights based on incidental factors beyond his/her control should be recognized as bigotry. We don’t need to reject data to make that political point.
In fact, to feel we need to refute unlikeable data buys into a dangerous premise. The impulse to reject findings we don’t agree with is tacitly conceding that this kind of data can legislate rights, so to make sure we maintain the ones we want, it’s best to hide the findings that might undercut them. That admission is deeply problematic – for science because it leads us down a road of stifling findings that don’t resonate with our moral preferences, and for politics because it says our nation’s values on who should be able to have children are not founded in basic rights, but instead subject to the results of a single social science study. Neither is a road we should feel comfortable treading on.
Regnerus’ study had major flaws, and that fact should be known. But his findings shouldn’t have mattered that much, anyway. I for one don’t like the idea of using group outcomes data to determine basic rights. I don’t need to reject his paper to affirm that I support same-sex couples having children, and neither should you.