The Corner

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Holland Again


Lee Badgett says my “timing is off” in my claims about marriage in The Netherlands. According to Badgett, the acceleration in Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate tentatively began a couple of years before registered partnerships passed, so I can’t be right. I disagree.

For one thing, the continuation of apparent trends cannot be taken for granted. A substantial continuous rise in out-of-wedlock birthrates for so many years (unmatched by any other Western European country in the same period) cannot be assumed to be “in the cards” from the start.

For another thing, cultural the impact of the gay marriage movement easily predates the beginning of the acceleration in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate. In 1990, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that it was not discriminatory to limit marriage to the union of a man and a woman. The court rested its argument on the potential of heterosexual marital unions for procreation. Within weeks of that decision, a majority of the Dutch parliament demanded that a government commission explore the issue of same-sex marriage.

Soon municipalities all over The Netherlands were registering same-sex partnerships as if they were marriages (much as happened in the San Francisco after the Goodridge decision). So from 1990 on, a substantial Dutch campaign for same-sex marriage openly disputed the notion that marriage is intrinsically tied to the potential for procreation. That was several years before the acceleration in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate took off, giving time for the new understanding of marriage to sink in. Parliamentary debates and the eventual passage of registered partnerships in the mid-nineties simply drove home the changed view of marriage that had been circulating and building for several years.

And the acceleration in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate was substantial: the most substantial acceleration in Western Europe in that time period. The fact that the acceleration in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate matches or exceeds what happened in Eastern Europe in response to the collapse of communism shows how significant the Dutch change was. No one dismisses the change in East European out-of-wedlock birthrates as merely “subtle” or “apparent.” On the contrary, sociologists treat this as major shift, demanding a tailored explanation. So we’ve got to treat the shift in The Netherlands just as seriously.

Badgett’s attempt to downplay the cultural impact of the movement for same-sex marriage doesn’t work. The gay marriage debate in the United States a huge cultural fact. I don’t see how anyone can claim otherwise. Many believe gay marriage was the deciding issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. Gay marriage is generally considered the most divisive and difficult issue in America’s “culture war.” Attempts to minimize the cultural salience of the gay marriage debate are entirely unconvincing.

Just ask people in the marriage movement, who would vastly prefer to be discussing, say, the American Law Institute’s foolish marriage reform plan, or fatherlessness. The problem is that the same-sex marriage debate is such a huge cultural fact that it has sucked up all the public’s available attention on the marriage issue. The high profile controversy that swirls around our gay marriage debate is a major cultural phenomenon. Who can deny it? It will indeed have effects on the culture of marriage in the United States, just as it did in The Netherlands. How could it not?