‘No differences’ theory countered in new study

Are children raised by same-sex couples as emotionally and psychologically healthy as those raised by their own opposite-sex parents? Up until now, with few exceptions, most sociological evidence has suggested that the answer is “yes.”

This month, however, the British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioral Science published the results of the largest study conducted to date on the question.

Authored by Father Paul Sullins, a professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America, the report — “Emotional Problems Among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition” — paints a very different picture of how children are parented by same-sex couples.

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father Sullins about the study. Here’s what we learned.

Our Sunday Visitor: How was this study different from previous studies on the topic?

Father Paul Sullins: Only five in 1,000 U.S. families with children involve same-sex parents, so you need a very large body of data to be able to study them. In previous studies, either the dataset was too small (this was [Dr. Mark] Regnerus’ problem) or large enough but didn’t have good measures of child outcomes (a scholar named Rosenfeld used census data, for example, which is large enough, but doesn’t ask any questions about child well-being). 

My study uses data from the National Health Interview Survey, which is very large and has extensive measures of child health and psychological well-being. The data I used is based on 1.6 million cases, carefully and randomly sampled by the Centers for Disease Control to represent the U.S. population with a great deal of precision.

OSV: What specific questions did the study seek to ask?

Father Sullins: Almost all prior research had found children with same-sex parents to suffer no disadvantage in emotional or psychological well-being compared to other children, but those studies were based on small nonrandom samples. I wanted to find out if those findings could be confirmed in a large statistically representative population sample. 

My null hypothesis was that there were no differences, but I found that in fact there were substantial differences between the two groups of children. 

OSV: What did the study not do? What were its limits?

Father Sullins: There are many limits of this study. I did not have enough data or measures to look at subsets of the same-sex parent families, so I don’t know if there’s any difference between male (gay) or female (lesbian) parents, married or cohabiting parents, male or female children, etc., in this group. I could only use the variables that were already in the data, which were sometimes not that precise, particularly for the confounders I looked at (instability, stigmatization, etc.).

As with any cross-sectional survey, we can’t tell for sure what the causes or mechanisms are that bring about the differences observed. I conclude the study by calling for more research to address these limitations. My study leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

OSV: What do you think was the most significant finding this study produced?

Father Sullins: Overall, 7 percent of children residing with opposite-sex parents experience serious emotional problems, compared to 15 percent of children with same-sex parents. After adjusting for differences between the two groups in the distribution of sex, age, race and parent education and income, the difference is even larger: 7.4 percent to 17.4 percent. The chance of a difference this large being due to random fluctuation in the sample is less than one in 1,000.

A measure that predicts problems severe enough to result in a clinical diagnosis puts the rate at 4.4 percent for children with opposite-sex parents and 9.3 percent for children with same-sex parents.

It is a difficult finding to explain away, which challenges the settled opinion of many scholars in this area. Beyond that, I would point to the finding that a joint biological relationship — that is, growing up with their own mother and father — is the most powerful predictor of child emotional well-being. Compared to this, nothing else — not family instability, not bullying or stigmatization, not even parental psychological problems, much less income or education — mattered very much. 

OSV: What was for you the most surprising?

Father Sullins: Apart from joint biological parenting, it also didn’t matter very much whether the parents were same-sex or opposite-sex. I compared opposite-sex parent families in which only one parent was a biological parent — think step-families — or neither parent was — think adopted children — to their same-sex counterparts, and found no differences in child emotional problems. 

There is no evidence, in other words, that the quality of parenting, parental support, parent-child dynamics, etc., are less beneficial for children with same-sex parents than for those with opposite-sex parents, when those parents are not their natural mother and father. The point is not that same-sex persons, whether married or not, are not somehow less loving or effective as parents, but that, unlike opposite-sex partners, they cannot jointly procreate a child, which is the type of natural relationship in which children thrive best, by far, with regard to emotional health. 

OSV: Do you think anyone will listen, or do you expect the findings to be marginalized?

Father Sullins: I expected to be pretty much ignored, though that hasn’t happened. Thousands of people around the world have downloaded these articles in just a few days, and I’ve been overwhelmed with media requests. 

OSV: Do you think there’s any study that could convince supporters of same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting that the emperor has no clothes, so to speak — that what’s best for children is to be raised by their biological mother and father?

Father Sullins: I would not want to sin against the virtue of hope by thinking that there are not reasonable people out there who have, understandably, been taken in by misleading research alleging “no differences” and are open to evidence to the contrary. 

Many good Catholics, I think, would be happy to learn that what the Church has consistently taught in this area is not based in intolerance and homophobia, but a correct understanding of the importance of a child being raised by her or his own mother and father. 

OSV: Given what happened to Mark Regnerus — the professional smears and personal attacks — do you have any concerns about yourself and your own work?

Father Sullins: In a scholarly community supposedly devoted to free inquiry, the treatment given Professor Regnerus is inexcusable. 

Dr. Paul Cameron, another pioneering scholar in this area, has suffered even worse. I can certainly understand why these findings may be upsetting to some people, but the way to respond to them is through reasoned debate and evidence, which I welcome, and not professional intimidation. 

I haven’t yet experienced anything similar to Regnerus or Cameron due to this research, though it’s early yet, and I realize that it may be coming. I do have the advantage of following them, and people are asking, as in your question, if secular scholars or gay advocates are just going to do it again. 

If God sends people to confess my sins for me or help me escape some of the vanities of prestige and position, I pray for the grace to respond in love and mercy. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

What Does It Mean?
In the study’s conclusion, author Father Paul Sullins sums up what his findings mean for marriage policy in the United States: