Controversy surrounding the study, titled the New Family Structures Study, centers on both its research methods and on speculation as to the motivations of the funding parties: the right-leaning Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. Politics professor Robert George, a vocal conservative on campus and off, is both a Senior Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute and on the board of the Bradley Foundation, while also leading groups like the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage.
Pro-gay rights journalist Scott Rose, author of a regular column for the New Civil Rights Movement, disputed the legitimacy of the research in an interview, explaining that the study was “intentionally designed to make homosexuals look bad.”
“It wasn’t misdesigned and poorly executed because of ineptitude. It was poorly designed and booby-trapped against these people by intent,” Rose said. The Regnerus study was brought to public attention largely due to Rose’s vocal opposition to its methods and conclusions.
But Research Scholar at the Witherspoon Institute Ana Samuel said many people who objected to the study’s findings may have misunderstood the findings because they may not have actually read the study.
“Dr. Regnerus was very clear that the study does not establish causality,” Samuel said. “In other words, it was not a report card about gay parenting. The study was simply a report on the condition of children who came from different families.”
Over two hundred medical doctors, sociologists and other scholars signed a petition to the editor of Social Science Research, the journal in which the Regnerus study was published, that called into question the integrity of the article’s review process and the sampling methods used.
The letter to the editor argues that Regnerus neglects to distinguish family instability from family structure. For example, the pool of children of homosexual parents included children whose parents had divorced or died – factors that could have a negative impact on the children. However, the pool of children of heterosexual parents was screened so that only intact, biological families were included.
However, in August, the University of Texas performed an inquiry into Regnerus’ study and decided that he had sufficiently employed scientific methods and that no further investigation was necessary. Social Science Research also conducted an audit that claimed the journal had not violated procedural guidelines.
According to Samuel, the scholars in opposition of Regnerus had overreacted.
“What happened to Dr. Regnerus was so unusual,” Samuel said. “Instead of just sitting down and writing a paper refuting his work, they went and pressured his home university to conduct an academic investigation ... and it became so politicized and so out of the ordinary. I think it was a very unfair way to treat Dr. Regnerus.”
Regnerus’ article claims that the Witherspoon Institute, while involved in the funding for the project, had no involvement in the planning and design of the project. However, this too is disputed. The Witherspoon Institute has sponsored a website promoting Regnerus’ New Family Structures Study.
Rose believes that Witherspoon’s role in enabling the study is more complex, citing the involvement of George and other Witherspoon members in the National Organization of Marriage, the Family Research Council — which promoted the Regnerus study — and other organizations with a similar stand.
“I think it is imperative that responsible intellectuals stand up and say that this kind of thing will not be allowed. I specifically think that Princeton President Shirley Tilghman and the trustees of Princeton University should take a stand against Robert George’s anti-gay bigotism,” Rose said.
But according to Samuel, George was not involved in the design of the study, and the National Organization of Marriage and other organizations of which he is a member are also uninvolved with the Witherspoon Institute, despite several overlapping board members.
“All kinds of research projects are funded by left-leaning or right-leaning organizations. The reality of the fact is that people who have similar motives will give money because they’re interested in research being done in a certain area,” Samuel said.
George did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Witherspoon officially supports heterosexual marriage, but according to Samuel, it does not yet have an official position on gay parenting due to lack of available research. As a result, Samuel said the Institute wants to promote research into the area in order to possibly formulate an opinion.
“We sincerely want to know more, so that’s why more research and less ideology could be promoted,” Samuel said. “So really, the fact that Witherspoon, despite its right-leaning tendencies, funded a study, doesn’t mean that the study is automatically legitimate. There’s always controversy. But the point is that researchers and academics have to commit ethically to not be swayed by their funding organizations.”
Rose, however, called the study “pseudo-science.”
“In a general way, I think that this episode is really disgraceful because in the country’s history, pseudo-science has been used before to clobber despised groups,” Rose said. “It’s happened to blacks, it’s happened to Jews, it’s happened to Chinese Americans, and there’s no excuse for it happening in the 21st century in the United States.”
In a letter late last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robert Lopez, the son of a lesbian mother, said in response to the letter that the research didn’t actually anger him.
“Far from seeing [Regnerus’] research as insulting, I see it as affirming,” Lopez wrote. “For the first time in my 41 years of life, someone finally acknowledged that the way I grew up was hard and it wasn’t my fault.”
While this reaction was rare, Samuel acknowledged that gay rights activists could appreciate the study because it provides a case for gay marriage.
“These findings can be interpreted to show that lesbian couples and gay couples need marriage,” Samuel said. “Rather than it being an attack on gay parenting, it could be seen as a wake-up call that gay marriage is necessary, so that gay parenting can go better.”