June 11, 2012 -- A new study finds that adult children of parents in same-sex relationships fare worse socially, psychologically and physically than people raised in other family arrangements.
Critics call the study deeply flawed, saying the results don't accurately describe -- or even measure -- any children raised in stable households with two same-sex parents.
The study surveyed nearly 3,000 U.S. adults, ages 18 to 39, about their upbringing and their lives today, asking questions about factors such as income, relationship stability, mental health and history of sexual abuse. Of the 3,000 respondents, 73 reported that their father had engaged in a same-sex relationship and 163 reported that their mother had done so.
People who reported that their mother or father had a same-sex relationship at some point were different than children raised by their biological, still-married parents in 25 of the study's 40 measures. And most of the time, they fared worse. The children of parents who at some point had a same-sex partner were more likely to be on welfare, have a history of depression, have less education and report a history of sexual abuse, the study found.
The study was published Sunday in the journal Social Science Research. It was funded by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, groups that are "commonly known for their support of conservative causes," though the organizations played no role in the design and analysis of the report, the study said.
Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the report, said the study was not intended as a political statement, but simply tried to answer the question of whether children of parents with same-sex relationships are different. He said the study also isn't designed to prove that family structure causes poor health.
"I'm not claiming that gay and lesbian adults are bad parents. This is not a parenting study," Regnerus said. "What this shows is that there's lots of diversity."
Regardless, the study touches a raw nerve at a time of heated political battles over gay marriage and same-sex parenting. Both supporters and critics of the study claim to have science on their side.
Regnerus said the study is the largest to date of a random, nationally representative sample of young adults in the United States who report that at least one parent had a same-sex romantic relationship. The study included 919 adults raised by their biological, still-married parents and more than 800 who came from single-parent families, as well as children of divorced parents, stepparents and adopted families. But just a fraction of the respondents, 1.7 percent, said their mother or father had a same-sex relationship.
Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Institute, part of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, said Regnerus's study is the most comprehensive to date of the differences between same-sex and heterosexual parents and highlights the instability of same-sex relationships, a negative circumstance for children.
"The instability of the coupling is the really big finding that I think is debate-altering," he said.
But critics say that's precisely what the study does not show.
"This study doesn't really have anything to do with same-sex families of today," said Dr. Jenna Saul, a Wisconsin-based child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Same-Sex Relationship Study Sparks Criticism
The study is a snapshot of a particular moment in history. The youngest people in the survey turned 18 in 2011 and the oldest did so in 1990, growing up in a time when social support for gay lifestyles, particularly those involving children, was less established. In 2000, the U.S. Census counted nearly 170,000 households headed by gay or lesbian parents of children under age 18. In fact, only two of the respondents reported living with their mother or father and a same-sex partner for their entire childhood.
"I'd be interested in seeing this study redone in 20 years with the more intact same-sex families we see now," Saul said.
Gary Gates, who studies the LGBT population at UCLA's Williams Institute, said the study offers no clear conclusions about the relationship between parents' sexual orientation and a child's wellbeing. Instead, the results say more about the role of instability in childhood.
"To determine whether a parental same-sex relationship affects a child's outcome, it is critical to know the length of these relationships, and whether the same-sex partners were actually living with, and parenting, the child for any length of time. The study does not assess this," Gates said.
Other studies have found that children raised by same-sex parents are not different from children of heterosexual couples. The American Psychological Association, the Child Welfare League of America and other organizations have issued public support for same-sex parenting.
Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian families, said the study has no effect on the "overwhelming body of research" that has found that children of same-sex couples do as well as those of heterosexual parents.
"It is clear that families are stronger and more stable when they can stay together," she said. "That means what we should be doing is supporting policies that make it easier for gay and lesbian families to stay together."
Regnerus said he has no opinion on whether the study supports or refutes the benefits of condoning same-sex marriages and parenting.
"This study really can't answer any political questions," he said.
Editor's note: The original headline of this story was changed in order to reflect the nature of the piece.