In the Michigan Marriage Case, Which Side Is ‘Unbelievable’?
NEWS ANALYSIS: Judge Bernard Friedman made a highly selective reading of the evidence about same-sex parenting, in his March 21 decision striking down the state’s marriage law.
On Friday, March 21, Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that Michigan’s voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman was unconstitutional. The following Monday, a higher court stayed enforcement, pending appeal.
But an analysis of the empirical evidence presented during the trial to Friedman, about how children fare when raised by same-sex parents, suggests that his decision was based in part on a highly selective reading of that evidence — one that overlooked the known shortcomings of the studies that claim to have established that same-sex parenting provides equally good outcomes for children as those raised in families composed of married, biological parents.
The plaintiffs, Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer, originally filed suit against a Michigan law that prohibited them from adopting each other’s children. Rowse has adopted two children with special needs, and DeBoer adopted one. They wanted joint custody of all three children.
Friedman encouraged the plaintiffs, as he noted on page 3 of his ruling, to expand their lawsuit to include a challenge of the state’s marriage amendment. The judge’s suggestion may have foreshadowed his eventual decision.
Lawyers for the state of Michigan had argued that the marriage amendment could be found constitutional if the defendant could establish a rational basis for favoring male/female marriage, and that rational basis is that children do better when raised by their married biological father and mother.
The testimony during the trial devolved into a battle over published studies on how children fared when raised by parents in same-sex (SS) relationships.
Experts from both sides offered data supporting their stance. But Friedman rejected the testimony of the state’s experts, including that of Mark Regnerus, author of one of the largest studies of SS parenting, as “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”
Decades of research have found that children do better, on average, across a wide range of measures when raised for their entire childhood in an intact family with their married, biological (IMB) parents. Children who experience the death of a parent, divorce, separation, adoption or foster care or who are conceived by an artificial insemination donor (AID) or surrogate mother, on average, do less well. Separation from one or both biological parents is perceived by the child as a loss and is often accompanied by other stressors. (This does not mean, of course, that every child who experiences parental separation is doomed or every child raised in an IMB family will succeed.)
Reason for Skepticism
Therefore, in 2005, when the American Psychological Association’s brief on “Lesbian and Gay Parenting” stated, “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents,” there was reason to be skeptical. Since every child being raised by a SS couple has by definition been separated from one or both biological parents — whether through divorce, non-marital conception, adoption, foster care, artificial insemination donor or surrogate motherhood — it would be expected that a higher number of these children would be disadvantaged relative to children raised in IMB families.
How, then, did the APA arrive at its conclusion? The research cited by APA did not compare children raised by SS couples to children raised in IMB families. Of the 59 studies cited by the APA, only 33 even had a comparison group, and only one of these compared the children of SS couples to the children of IMB parents. Most of the others compared them to children of single mothers — an admittedly poorer and more disadvantaged population.
In an article in the July 2012 edition of Social Science Research, Loren Marks carefully analyzed the 59 studies cited by the APA and found all but one lacking. The samples were small, comprised of unrepresentative groups of white, well-educated, better-off SS couples. Additionally, the studies often relied on the mother’s opinion of the child’s progress rather than objective criteria.
Only one study cited, that by Sotirios Sarantakos, “Children in Three Contexts” (1996), compared children of heterosexual married parents and children living with SS couples. To see if the inability to marry was a crucial factor, a third comparison group was added in this study: children of cohabiting heterosexual couples. Teacher evaluation and other objective criteria were used, and in virtually every category, the children of IMB parents exceeded those of cohabiting parents and both exceeded those of SS parents. However, the APA brief reduced Saranatakos’ study to a footnote.
Mark Regnerus, in an article in Social Science Research (2012), sought to test the APA’s assertion of “no disadvantage” by comparing the impact of eight different family forms on the outcomes for young adults.
Regnerus found that children of IMB parents had better outcomes across a wide range of measures, including employment, education, criminal records and relationship stability, than children of persons involved in SS relationships.
The APA statement uses the work “significant.” However, significant, when used in reference to statistical results of a study, has a very narrow meaning. It doesn’t mean there are no differences, but that the differences relative to the size of the sample are not greater than that which could have occurred by chance. Therefore, a finding of no significant differences can mean that the study as designed could not find existing differences.
And according to Marks, the studies cited by the APA were so poorly designed that they may well have missed “significant” differences.
However, the defenders of the APA’s 2005 statement claim that the existence of 59 studies finding no significant difference means that the results should be accepted because they had been “replicated” many times.
Marks countered that, because the 59 studies suffered collectively from similar faults (small, unrepresentative samples, no proper control group and reliance on parental valuations rather than objective criteria), the studies simply replicated the same errors.
According to Marks, “If errors … are repeated by different researchers, the logic behind replication is undermined.”
Difficult to Study
For a number of reasons, it has been difficult to design effective studies of SS couples and children.
First, it isn’t easy to collect a large, random sample of children raised by SS couples. For example, in the Regnerus study, 15,058 persons were surveyed before they found 248 who had a parent with a SS relationship. The critics of Regnerus argued that he should have compared IMB families with children with children of SS couples who were together for 18 years or more. However, only two out of the 15,058 young adults had a parent who met that criterion.
Nothing statistically significant can be learned from a sample of two, except perhaps that young adults with parents involved in SS relationships are unlikely to have a childhood free of major disruptions.
But that’s not what Judge Friedman concluded. He found the research supporting same-sex parenting to be wholly persuasive, stating in his decision that “the results of such studies are valid and reliable if, as occurred here, they are consistently replicated by different researchers studying different sample groups. “
And he rejected the findings of Regnerus, Marks and other experts called by the state in support of its defense of Michigan’s marriage amendment. Collectively, he commented dismissively, they “clearly represent a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of their colleagues across a variety of social-science fields.”
In summary, Friedman accepted the results of poorly designed, statistically invalid studies and rejected as “unbelievable” well-designed studies, which showed statistically significant differences. The actual data about same-sex parenting indicates that the jury remains very much out, in terms of validating the claim that this novel family form can deliver anything close to the same quality of care for children as is provided by the traditional family form of married, biological parents.
Dale O’Leary is a freelance writer and lecturer and is the author of
She currently resides in Florida.