Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is the New Family Structures Study?
The New Family Structures Study is a large-scale, U.S. population-based study on the outcomes of young adults raised in various family structures, commissioned in 2010 by a social-conservative think tank called the Witherspoon Institute. The study’s intended goal – detailed in grant proposals, internal emails, and fundraising letters – was to debunk the widely accepted claim, bolstered by multiple sociology studies, that children do fine when raised by same-sex parents. The study has been criticized for its flawed methodology (it essentially compared apples and oranges, drawing up results suggesting that children of gay and lesbian parents do poorly); its suspect peer-review and publication process; and the involvement of the study’s ideologically motivated funders – an involvement that was initially concealed. Meanwhile, the study continues to be used as a political weapon against marriage and adoption rights for LGBT people all over the world.
2. Who conducted the study?
Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, was the principal investigator of the New Family Structures Study. The Witherspoon Institute recruited Regnerus to head up the study.
3. How was the study conducted?
The New Family Structures Study team hired the research firm Knowledge Networks (now part of the GfK Group) to collect the data. Researchers screened approximately 15,000 current and former members of Knowledge Network’s KnowledgePanel and ended up surveying 2,988 young adults ages 18 to 39, using a probability-based Web panel designed to be representative of the United States. The intent of the study was to examine the outcomes of respondents who grew up in certain family structures and compare them to those who grew up in families where the respondent’s biological mother and father were married throughout the respondent’s childhood – what principal investigator Mark Regnerus termed the “intact biological family.”
Regnerus divided these family types into eight sample groups: (1) intact biological families; (2) families where the mother had a “same-sex romantic relationship” (something Regnerus never defined) at some point during the respondent’s childhood; (3) families where the father had a “same-sex romantic relationship” at some point during the respondent’s childhood; (4) families where the respondent was adopted at birth or before age 2; (5) families where the parents divorced later or had joint custody; (6) families where respondents were raised by one biological parent and that parent’s spouse; (7) families where respondents were raised by a single parent; and (8) “all others.” (Note: The survey did not ask respondents who said their biological parents had been married for their entire childhoods if one of their parents had ever had a “same-sex romantic relationship” throughout their childhood. It simply assumed these married couples were monogamous.)
Of the approximately 3,000 people surveyed, researchers only identified 163 respondents who said their mothers had a same-sex relationship sometime during their childhood and 73 whose fathers said they had a same-sex relationship during their childhood. However, only two of these 236 young adults who said one of their parents had a same-sex relationship were raised by a same-sex couple for their entire childhoods. And only a small percentage said they had been raised by a same-sex couple for more than a few years. Regnerus lumped all of these respondents together, regardless of how long they lived with the supposed gay or lesbian parent or how long they lived with the gay parent and that parent’s partner.
All of the respondents were asked a series of questions in the form of an online survey to determine how the sample groups collectively fared among a series of social, emotional, behavioral, and economic outcomes, such as marital status, employment status, income level, criminal history, sexual orientation, suicidal tendencies, experience with sexual abuse, experience with drug and alcohol abuse, and overall happiness .
4. What did the study say?
The initial findings of the New Family Structures Study, which were published in the July 2012 issue of the peer-review journal Social Science Research, suggested that Regnerus’ thesis – and that of his funders – had been correct. Regnerus said he found that children of “lesbian mothers” (those mothers who reportedly had a same-sex relationship at some point) had negative outcomes in 24 of the 40 categories measured compared to children of married heterosexual couples. He said he found that children of “gay fathers” (those fathers who reportedly had a same-sex relationship at some point) had negative outcomes in 19 of the 40 categories.
“While the NFSS may best capture what might be called an ‘earlier generation’ of children of same-sex parents, and includes among them many who witnessed a failed heterosexual union, the basic statistical comparisons between this group and those of others, especially biologically-intact, mother/father families, suggests that notable differences on many outcomes do in fact exist,” Regnerus wrote. “This is inconsistent with claims of ‘no differences’’ generated by studies that have commonly employed far more narrow samples than this one.”
But Regnerus’ stated findings were incredibly misleading. Regnerus did not compare children raised by stably coupled same-sex parents with children raised by stably coupled opposite-sex parents. Remember, he only found two respondents who said they were raised by two lesbian parents for their entire childhoods, but he lumped these respondents in with all of the respondents who said their mother had a same-sex relationship. Thus, his conclusion that he had debunked the “no differences” theory is not supported by the data he analyzed. Instead, Regnerus had effectively measured children raised in stable household to children whose households were characterized by instability. Many critics of this study, including Regnerus’ professional organization, the American Sociological Association, have pointed out that the negative outcomes were predictable rather than revelatory.
5. Who paid for the study?
The Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank based in Princeton, N.J., funded the bulk of the New Family Structures Study, to the tune of nearly $700,000. Initially, the Witherspoon Institute, which has been advocating against same-sex marriage for years, gave Regnerus a $55,000 planning grant and followed it up with a $640,000 grant. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, a conservative grant-making institution in Milwaukee, Wis., granted Regnerus $90,000 for the study, at the Witherspoon Institute’s request. Both organizations have ties to the major religious right policy groups in the U.S. that continually battle same-sex marriage efforts and LGBT-rights issues.
From the beginning, Regnerus and the Witherspoon Institute have said the funders had nothing to do with how the study was designed or implemented. In his initial article on his findings, Regnerus wrote: “The NFSS was supported in part by grants from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. While both of these are commonly known for their support of conservative causes—just as other private foundations are known for supporting more liberal causes—the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript.”
But it turns out that a former Witherspoon Institute fellow who directed the program that conceptualized the New Family Structures Study and actually recruited Regnerus to lead the study worked on the study as a paid consultant. W. Bradford Wilcox was still a fellow with the Witherspoon Institute for much of the time he was working with Regnerus. And internal communications show that he played a key advisory role.
6. Why is the New Family Structures Study controversial?
The study is controversial because of its methodological flaws, how it was financed, its clear anti-same-sex-marriage motivations, and the suspiciously fast and sloppy way it was published in a peer review journal.
7. Why is this study being used to fight efforts to legalize same-sex marriage adoption rights for LGBT people?
The president of the Witherspoon Institute, which funded the bulk of the New Family Structures Study, told Regnerus (before the professor began collecting data) that he wanted the study to be completed in time for Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex marriage. Immediately after the study was published in June 2012, it has been frequently referenced by social conservative groups, anti-gay activists, lawmakers, and judges in the U.S. and around the world to argue that same-sex marriage should be banned. The argument tends to be that if children are known to be negatively impacted if raised by same-sex parents – as Regnerus study claims – the government should discourage such families by banning same-sex marriage. Many American judges, Supreme Court justices, and LGBT advocates have dismissed the very premise of this argument – arguing that potential parenting outcomes should not be a factor in the marriage-equality question – regardless of the fact that the study bolstering it is flawed.
8. Who has spoken out against this study?
Many journalists criticized Regnerus’s study when it was first published – journalists from mainstream, liberal, and conservative publications. For example, while The Weekly Standard ran a cover story depicting the heavy criticism against Regnerus’ study as a witch hunt, senior editor Andrew Ferguson still criticized the study for its sampling weaknesses and acknowledged that the study has been misrepresented by allies to the Witherspoon Institute. Criticisms from the sociology community have similarly abounded. Shortly after the study was published, Gary J. Gates, a distinguished scholar at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law’s Williams Institute, organized an open letter signed by more than 200 researchers, excoriating Regnerus’ paper and asking that Social Science Research invite scholars with an expertise in LGBT family research to submit a detailed critique of the paper in the subsequent issue of Social Science Research. In the fall, Laurie Essig, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at Middlebury College in Vermont launched a Facebook group called Sociology for the Public Good and organized about 80 sociologists to demand that Social Science Research retract the study. Both the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association have condemned Regnerus’ study for its flaws.
9. Who has defended this study?
The major religious right groups in the U.S. – many of which are have ties to the Witherspoon Institute – immediately promoted and defended the study, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, NOM’s Ruth Institute, the Liberty Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, and, of course, the Witherspoon Institute. On June 20, 2012, 18 social scientists posted a defense of Regnerus’ study at the website for Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. That list has since grown to 27 and includes socially conservative scholars, including some who worked on the study or wrote positive critiques alongside it in Social Science Research.
10. What has Mark Regnerus said about this study in response to criticism?
Right after his study was published, Regnerus defended his research and claimed he had no position on same-sex marriage or LGBT parenting. Since then, Regnerus has spoken out against legalizing same-sex marriage, citing his own study to bolster his argument. Since then, he has admitted – but defended – the methodological flaws of his study, arguing he did compare apples to oranges but only because it sex-sex relationships are inherently unstable, implying it would be impossible to find enough stably couples same-sex couple parents.
Testifying last month at an information briefing panel on Hawaii’s proposed marriage-equality law, Regnerus said it was true that he studied “children who grew up in stably coupled married households versus kids who grew up in unstable households,” and that in reality he only found about a dozen out of 248 children raised by a parent who had a “same-sex romantic relationship” who lived with their mother and mother’s lesbian partner for at least 10 years. He blamed this discrepancy, however, on the fact that it was difficult to find stably coupled same-sex families – not on his methodology.
Regnerus has repeatedly said he takes no responsibility for how groups and lawmakers have attempted to use his study to influence public policy related to same-sex marriage and adoption. Recently, however, Regnerus condemned the use of his study in Russia to propose a law to take children away from their same-sex parents.
11. Why does the New Family Structures Study still matter?
Lawmakers, attorneys, and interest groups continue to cite this study – often misrepresenting its actual results. In several cases, perhaps the most harmful in Russia, decision-makers appear to be buying the argument.