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Debate over gay parents needs more honest inquiry

In this Wednesday, April 28, 2010 photo, Cara Palladino, left, and Isabelle Barker, background, feed their son, Will Palladino, 1, at their home in Philadelphia.
In this Wednesday, April 28, 2010 photo, Cara Palladino, left, and Isabelle Barker, background, feed their son, Will Palladino, 1, at their home in Philadelphia.
Matt Slocum, AP

I was a young schoolgirl when I first learned about Galileo standing trial before the Inquisition. His crime, as most schoolchildren learn, was defending the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around.

I still remember the collective gasp of my fifth-grade class when we learned what Galileo endured. We knew intuitively that academic freedom was an essential part of human liberty. It seemed almost impossible to imagine that a person could be tried, forced to recant and placed under house arrest for reporting scientific findings that merely challenged "the norm."

But history has a strange way of repeating itself. That comes to mind watching the storm of protest against sociologist Mark Regnerus' recent research study.

Within a month of publication, four of his colleagues at the University of Texas published a widely distributed op-ed accusing him of "irresponsible and reckless misrepresentation of social science research." Two hundred "researchers and scholars" sent a letter to the editor who published the study demanding that he "disclose the reasons" for publishing it and hire scholars to write a critique for the journal's next edition. Finally, university administrators informed Regnerus that a complaint of "scientific misconduct" had been lodged against him, then seized his computers and sequestered his files and emails.

All of this in spite of the fact that three widely acclaimed sociologists published reviews alongside his study concluding, respectively, that it was "more scientifically rigorous" than most other studies in the area, "the best that we can hope for, at least in the near future," and provided "reasonable arguments" needed to better inform research in the area.

What did Mark Regnerus do to provoke such a reaction?

He compared outcomes for 18- to 30-year-olds raised by parents who had a same-sex relationship with those raised in intact biological families. Those raised by parents who had a same-sex relationship experienced high levels of instability and fared worse on 24 of 40 outcomes.

As Regnerus summarizes, "Even after including controls for age, race, gender, and things like being bullied as a youth, or the gay-friendliness of the state in which they live, they were more apt to report being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things."

The picture revealed is dramatically different from the oft-cited conclusion that children of lesbian or gay parents do not differ from children raised in married biological families. The problem is that the widely touted conclusion of "no-difference" is based on studies using small, nonrandom convenience samples of mostly white, well-educated lesbian parents, who in some cases knew they were contributing to studies with political consequences. As such, they do not represent most children raised by parents who had same-sex relationships.

Regnerus' study addressed that major shortcoming by drawing on a large, random, representative sample of the population. That fact earned praise from the sociologists who published alongside the Regnerus study but has largely been ignored by its critics.

Clearly, Regnerus' study doesn't tell the whole story of same-sex parenting. He himself was careful to note that his findings may or may not be related to the same-sex nature of the parents' relationships. Those who reported that their parents had a same-sex relationship experienced much more family instability (such as divorce) than those from intact biological families. That alone could explain many challenges.

Understandably, this study has sparked passionate responses. It comes in the midst of a politically divisive debate over whether to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. More personally, it places under an academic microscope the most tender and meaningful of human relationships. A study of children's "outcomes" could easily be interpreted as a critique of parents' parenting. As one critic noted, "For LGBT people, this is about whether or not they can have children."

But it is precisely because Regnerus' study touches on such sensitive issues that more, not less, study is needed.

The University of Texas recently closed further inquiry into allegations of scientific misconduct by Regnerus, finding "insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation." As such, Regnerus' study should be evaluated through normal academic review and public debate, not subjected to further inquisition aimed at expunging its record.

As our nation, communities and families grapple with the grave and serious matter of the definition of marriage (and other issues related to gay and lesbian parenting), we need more, not less, academic freedom, honest inquiry and civil discourse.

Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.