Aug. 4, 2016
In an interview on July 17, Chuck Todd of NBC challenged Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus regarding a passage in the Republican platform dealing with family structure, which includes the statements:
Children raised in a two-parent household tend to be physically and emotionally healthier, more likely to do well in school, less likely to use drugs and alcohol, engage in crime, or become pregnant outside of marriage.
The data and the facts lead to an inescapable conclusion: Every child deserves a married mom and dad.
Priebus defended the platform plank, affirming that “the best scenario for kids is a loving mom and dad.”
That same day, PolitiFact released an article that rated Priebus’ statement “False.”
A rating along the lines of “Requires clarification” might have been defensible. However, in light of the available evidence, rating the statement “False” is nothing short of bizarre. It destroys not Priebus’ credibility, but PolitiFact’s as a neutral arbiter.
In October 2014, PolitiFact offered a similar critique of a similar statement by Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. A detailed response was posted on the Family Research Council blog, all of which is still valid. Following is a summary with information on some more recent research.
What the research on family structure shows
Here are some other professional organizations which have made statements similar to that in the platform:
The non-partisan, non-profit research group Child Trends has reported, “An extensive body of research tells us that children do best when they grow up with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage.”
The anti-poverty group the Center for Law and Social Policy reported, “Research indicates that, on average, children who grow up in families with both their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage are better off in a number of ways than children who grow up in single-, step- or cohabiting-parent households. Compared to children who are raised by their married parents, children in other family types are more likely to achieve lower levels of education, to become teen parents, and to experience health, behavior, and mental health problems.”
The Institute for American Values declared (as one of its “fundamental conclusions” about “what current social science evidence reveals about marriage in our social system”), “The intact, biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life in the United States, insofar as children are most likely to thrive—economically, socially, and psychologically—in this family form.”
One example of the type of research being summarized in those statements is the federal survey data published in 2014 which showed that “children living with two biological parents” (which by definition includes a “mom and dad”) are fifteen times less likely “to have had four or more adverse experiences” than children in any other living situation.
These statements alone should be sufficient to designate Priebus’ innocuous statement as “true.”
Not just about parents who identify as homosexual
The clarification that might be justified is that these broad and entirely accurate summaries of the research on family structure are based primarily on studies that did not focus specifically on a comparison with children raised by parents who identify as homosexual or by same-sex couples. However, the platform passage did not limit its conclusion to such comparisons, either. Omitted from mention in Todd’s questioning of Priebus were the following references in the platform to cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent households:
We oppose policies and laws that create a financial incentive for or encourage cohabitation. Moreover, marriage remains the greatest antidote to child poverty. The 40 percent of children who now are born outside of marriage are five times more likely to live in poverty than youngsters born and raised by a mother and father in the home. Nearly three-quarters of the $450 billion government annually spends on welfare goes to single-parent households.
Instead, Todd focused only on same-sex parents, saying, “It’s implying that somehow children of same-sex couples are more likely to be addicts? To engage in crime?” Chuck Todd’s single-minded focus on same-sex parents was deceptive regarding the context of the platform language—and PolitiFact should have noted that and called him out on it.
What about the research on parents who identify as homosexual?
Nevertheless, it is also true that the platform says that “the cornerstone of the family is natural marriage, the union of one man and one woman,” and it declares, “Our laws and our government’s regulations should recognize marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” as well as saying, “Every child deserves a married mom and dad.” Since same-sex couples do not meet this definition of marriage and do not provide both a mom and a dad, a clarification of what the research on parents who identify as homosexual shows is also in order.
PolitiFact refers to only two sources for its conclusion: a one-page summary of the findings of “78 scholarly studies” on “the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents” published by Columbia Law School (which concludes that “children of gay or lesbian parents fare no worse than other children”); and a longer research summary on “LGB-Parent Families” published by a pro-homosexual think tank, The Williams Institute (which concludes that “LGB parents and their children are functioning quite well”).
Apples to Apples? Some studies omit the “intact biological family”
In evaluating any particular study that relates to “gay or lesbian parents,” it is crucial to be aware of what is being compared to what, and what conclusions can legitimately be drawn (or evaluated) from the findings.
For example, it is true that there have been a large number of studies which purport to show that children raised by “gay or lesbian” parents “do just as well” as, or show “no differences” from, children raised by “straight” or “heterosexual” parents. However, when you dig down you discover that many of these studies do not feature a comparison between children raised by “gay or lesbian parents” and children raised by the intact biological family—that is, children raised from birth by their married, biological mother and biological father. Instead, the comparison is with children who have heterosexual parents, but from single-parent, divorced, or step-parent households, for example.
Studies which look at children of “gay parents,” but which do not include the intact biological family as a comparison group, can tell us exactly nothing about whether “the best scenario for kids is a loving mom and dad.”
Furthermore, these studies, although numerous, suffer from serious methodological limitations, such as the use of very small, non-random “convenience” samples (gathered by advertising in “gay” publications, for example). Referring to a defense of parents who identify as homosexual by the American Psychological Association (APA), researcher Loren Marks reported in 2012, “[N]ot one of the 59 studies referenced in the 2005 APA Brief compares a large, random, representative sample of lesbian or gay parents and their children with a large, random, representative sample of married parents and their children.”
The Columbia publication cited by PolitiFact downplays this, arguing that “convenience sampling is not considered a methodological flaw, but simply a limitation to generalizability.” Yet “generalizing” from such studies, without apparent “limitation,” is exactly what defenders of “gay parents”—and PolitiFact—have done.
Apples to Apples? Some studies omit same-sex couples
On the other hand, some other studies have included comparisons between the intact biological family and other family structures, including ones in which a child’s mother or father had a same-sex relationship while the child was growing up. The most widely-reported such study in recent years was the New Family Structures Study published in 2012 by sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. It showed that children raised in the intact biological family have considerable advantages over those raised in other family structures—including children with a mother or father who had a homosexual relationship. (FRC published a summary of the Regnerus study on our website, then later added a more detailed list of its findings.)
One of the criticisms that some observers made regarding the Regnerus research was that it (like most of the studies favorable to “gay parents,” it might be noted) was not based on a direct, “couples-to-couples” comparison. Many of the “fathers who had a gay relationship” and “mothers who had a lesbian relationship” never lived in the same household with the child and a same-sex partner, and almost none lived in such a household throughout the child’s growing up. (Regnerus made these facts perfectly clear in both his initial article and a later, more detailed one.) The deficits identified in the children of “gay parents,” according to these critics, were the result of household instability (e.g., one parent divorcing the other parent to “come out” as gay or lesbian), not of sexual orientation per se.
Demanding that comparisons be made only with children of “stable” same-sex couples, however, is both unreasonable and unrealistic—given that such households are extraordinarily rare. Of the 248 children in the Regnerus study whose parents had had a homosexual relationship, only two had been raised by a same-sex couple (a female couple in both cases) from birth. Even the Williams Institute survey cited by PolitiFact acknowledges at the outset, “In the majority of contemporary LGB-parent families, the children were conceived in the context of different-sex relationships,” adding that “research is needed on LGB stepfamily formation post-heterosexual divorce.”
More recent studies have overcome some of the methodological limitations of earlier research, allowing couples-to-couples comparisons using much larger sample sizes drawn from government surveys. Canadian economist Douglas W. Allen and co-authors analyzed data from the 2000 U.S. census and reported, “Compared with traditional married households, we find that children being raised by same-sex couples are 35% less likely to make normal progress through school.” Another study by Allen using the 2006 Canada census found, “Children living with gay and lesbian families [a “same-sex married or common law couple”] in 2006 were about 65% as likely to graduate compared to children living in opposite sex marriage families.”
Sociologist D. Paul Sullins studied data from the National Health Interview Survey that included 512 children living with same-sex couples, and found that children in households with same-sex couples “are at least twice as likely to experience serious emotional problems compared to their counterparts” in other types of households generally, and more specifically “they are at almost four (3.6) times the risk of emotional problems when compared to children residing with married biological parents.”
Several other organizations and publications have produced summaries within the last two years of the existing research on family structure and child outcomes, including:
The American College of Pediatricians, et al. (amicus brief, U.S. Supreme Court)
The Republican platform, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, did not say, “Straight parents are better than gay parents.” The primary issue addressed by summary statements on family structure like those in the platform is not “sexual orientation”—it is the benefits to children of a two-parent home, marriage, gender complementarity, and a biological relationship with both parents. Evidence suggests that children denied the first two suffer, even if their parents are “straight”; while children with openly “gay” parents are always denied the latter two, no matter how “stable” their household.
This evidence is more than sufficient to rate Priebus’ statement that “the best scenario for kids is a loving mom and dad” as “True.”