Politics & Policy

No Explanation

Gay Marriage has sent the Netherlands the way of Scandinavia.

Dutch marriage is in trouble. Once noted for their low out-of-wedlock birthrates, and touted by scholars as an alternative to the Scandinavian family model, the Dutch are now experiencing a striking rupture in the relationship between marriage and childbearing, practicing Scandinavian-style parental cohabitation in increasing numbers. The bulk of the change has come in the past seven years–just as Holland adopted registered partnerships, and then full and formal same-sex marriage.

Coincidence? Advocates of same-sex marriage would like us to believe so. But a serious look at the evidence suggests otherwise. In “Going Dutch,” I point out how the decade-long campaign for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands helped break apart the relationship between marriage and parenthood. Advocacy of same-sex marriage encouraged erstwhile Dutch traditionalists to reconsider the idea that marriage has anything intrinsic to do with raising children. Not surprisingly, this “family diversity” ideal took hold. Dutch parents have begun to cohabit in ever-increasing numbers, leading to a dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births. Since cohabiting parents break up at two to three times the rate of married parents, we can expect a significant increase in children living with solo mothers in fatherless homes.

For the past several decades, Dutch society has successfully combined liberal laws and a secular outlook with attitudes lingering from Holland’s strongly religious past. Legally, the Dutch largely equalized marriage and cohabitation in the 1980’s. And premarital cohabitation has been widespread in the Netherlands for some time. Yet Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrates remained significantly lower than expected in a country with liberal laws and near-universal premarital cohabitation. For all the changes in the Dutch family since the sixties, the Dutch still believed that couples ought to marry before having children.

In the past seven years, however, the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate has been moving up at the strikingly high rate of two-percentage points per year. It needs to be emphasized that it is comparatively rare (although not unheard of) for a Western country’s out-of-wedlock birthrate to sustain a 2-percentage-point-per-year increase for seven consecutive years. Every year the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate continues to rise at a two-percent rate is a surprise. In the ’90s, only two European countries–Finland and Ireland–even approached such a rise (without achieving it). The rapid shift in Holland’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is therefore a significant turning point, and requires explanation.

In “Going Dutch,” I make the case that gay marriage had an important role in this shift. Of course, social-science evidence is almost always provisional and complex. There could be lots of other contributing factors. But if the widespread campaign to persuade the Dutch people that marriage has no special relationship to parenting is not the explanation for the dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births, what is?

No Explanation

Many explanations for increases in cohabiting couples with children have been proposed over the years, including contraception, abortion, women in the workforce, individualism, secularism, and the welfare state. How well do these alternative explanations account for the Dutch experience? Not very well, as we can see by looking at these hypotheses, one by one.


As everyone from religious traditionalists to cultural radicals has long understood, contraception is probably the single most important cause of modern marital decline. The pill helped detach sex from reproduction, setting in motion a chain of events that distanced marriage from parenthood. The pill allowed married couples to delay childbirth, which reduced the stigma on divorce, and encouraged premarital cohabitation.

Yet if the pill seriously weakened the connection between marriage and parenthood, the link was hardly eliminated. Modern contraception has long been available in both America and Sweden. Yet Americans take it for granted that parents ought to be married, while Swedes do not. Something beside contraception has to account for this difference.

If any country has assimilated the effects of contraception on marriage, it’s the Netherlands. A decade ago, demographers famously dubbed the Dutch “an almost perfect contraceptive population.” The pill has been available to all, free of charge, since the 1970s, and the moral legitimacy of contraception is taken for granted.

In part because of the widespread availability of the pill, the birthrate for single Dutch teens has historically been among the lowest in Europe. (Holland’s family traditionalism also keeps teen pregnancy rates low.) The Dutch teen birthrate has risen a bit since the mid-’90s, but this cannot be explained by any change in the availability of contraception. Instead the rise in teen out-of-wedlock births seems partially attributable to an increase in the number of poor urban immigrants, and is partly an effect of changing marital mores in the adult world. In any case, the post-1997 surge in Holland’s out-of-wedlock births is largely due to the spread of Swedish-style adult parental cohabitation, not to unplanned teen pregnancies.


The wide availability of abortion in the post-1960s West has also helped separate sex from reproduction (and marriage from parenthood). Yet as with contraception, abortion has been freely accessible and politically uncontroversial in the Netherlands for decades. The fundamental effect of abortion on Dutch marriage was registered long ago.

Attitudes toward abortion exemplify the Dutch cultural paradox. While the secular Dutch do not see abortion as categorically immoral, they do view it as an unfortunate last resort. The Dutch have long had one of the lowest abortion rates in the world. Distaste for abortion helps explain the vigorous public advocacy of contraception. The slight increase since the mid-’90s in the still very low Dutch abortion rate is chiefly due to non-Western immigrants. Yet there has been no real change in the availability of abortion, such as might explain the last seven years of marital decline.

Working Women

The movement of women into the workforce is another major cause of the decline of marriage. This is especially true in Scandinavia, where housewives have largely vanished from the scene–replaced by full-time working mothers and a vast government-sponsored day-care system. Women’s independence has encouraged delayed marriage, higher rates of divorce, and ultimately, parental cohabitation.

Yet what’s striking about the Netherlands is how greatly the situation of Dutch women departs from the Scandinavian pattern. Dutch female labor-force participation did increase during the ’90s. In 1992, 55.7 percent of families with young children had full-time working fathers and stay-at-home mothers. By 2001, that figure had decreased to 37 percent. Yet nearly all of the growth in female labor-force participation during the ’90s was in part-time work.

In Holland, if nowhere else, the “mommy track” has triumphed. Although many mothers work part-time, full-time working motherhood is widely condemned. Dutch feminists grouse about the prevailing “motherhood ideology,” and the seemingly endless stream of government white papers on the need for independent female incomes is largely ignored.

While Dutch day-care services have grown in response to increased female part-time labor, the childcare sector is still relatively small, and largely private. Even Dutch Social Democrats want the government out of childcare. Judged by feminist standards of equality in work, care, and income, the Netherlands finishes dead last when compared to other EU countries: another example of Dutch traditionalism. So despite the movement of some Dutch mothers into part-time labor, nothing significant enough to account for the recent rise of parental cohabitation has occurred. If anything, it’s remarkable that Swedish-style parental cohabitation has spread to a country where social circumstances for women differ so dramatically from Scandinavia.


Another potential culprit, Dutch secularization, has somewhat dented Dutch marriage. With each passing year, the first Dutch generation with a broadly secular upbringing takes a larger role in society. Yet, in an important sense, Dutch secularism has transformed Holland’s family mores by way of gay marriage. For example, the election of the first Dutch cabinet in memory with no representation from the Christian Democrats was a pivotal moment for the Dutch gay-marriage movement.

The secularism issue also begs the central cultural question: How much staying power does Dutch traditionalism have, in the absence of its original religious context? Although the Dutch have dropped their principled religious objections to abortion, residual cultural distaste for abortion remains strong. That’s why Holland still has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world. So secularism has not significantly undermined the traditional Dutch aversion to abortion. Yet the tendency of Dutch parents to marry is fading fast. Something beyond secularism must have intervened to account for that change.

Finally, growth in the number of self-described Dutch secularists actually leveled off in the mid- to late-’90s, exactly as the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate took off. So we need to look elsewhere for our explanation.


Individualism has certainly contributed to the rise of Dutch parental cohabitation. Yet the gay-marriage movement itself embodies this cultural force. Gay marriage encourages parental cohabitation because the public sees both changes in a radically libertarian light. Contrary to the claims of prominent American advocates of the “conservative case” for gay marriage, same-sex marriage is not taken as evidence that marriage is a superior family form. Instead, gay marriage is taken as proof that no family form is preferable to any other. Same-sex marriage teaches that individuals ought to be able to craft whatever sort of family they like, and the state should give no special support or encouragement to any one form. If a man wants to marry a man, that’s fine. If a man and woman want to have a child without getting married, that’s fine too. Family is whatever an individual wants it to be, and the state has no business expressing a preference. So gay marriage encourages parental cohabitation by way of radical individualism.

The Welfare State

Scandinavia’s massive welfare state has played a central role in the rise of Swedish-style parental cohabitation. With cohabitation and marriage treated equally under the law, with generous support for single parents, and with a vast government-run day-care sector, the Scandinavian family has in many respects been replaced by the state. Yet the Netherlands in the ’90s saw no fundamental changes along these lines.

The Netherlands has pension, unemployment, and health benefits that rival Scandinavia’s. Yet when it comes to the family, the Dutch welfare system departs sharply from Scandinavia’s. While the Swedish system treats even married taxpayers as individuals, Dutch tax law still assumes a single breadwinner. The breadwinner provisions were reaffirmed, with slight changes, in the new Dutch tax code of 2001. Combine this with special provisions for part-time labor (overwhelmingly used by mothers), and the Dutch government’s limited (and decreasing) involvement in day care, and it’s clear that Holland’s welfare state has not been pushing Dutch parents into Swedish-style parental cohabitation.

While no reform of law or welfare regulations over the past decade can account for the rapid rise of Dutch parental cohabitation, legal changes in the 1970s and 1980s did lay groundwork for Dutch marriage’s current troubles. Especially during the 1980s, cohabiting couples gained tax concessions and many of the pension and social-security benefits enjoyed by married couples. That really does take a leaf from the Scandinavian book.

Yet despite the long-standing legal equalization of marriage and cohabitation, Dutch parents just kept on getting married from the 1970s to the mid-’90s. That’s why observers pointed to Holland’s inherited “cultural capital” to explain its paradoxical mixture of marriage traditionalism and liberal law. Something beside liberal cohabitation laws had to intervene in order to break Holland’s marriage traditionalism and to set off the upsurge in parental cohabitation. That something was gay marriage.

Scholars Stumped

We’ve considered the alternative explanations for rising rates of parental cohabitation and found them incomplete or wanting. Scholars face the same dilemma. I contacted senior Dutch demographer, Joop Garssen, to find out if sociologists and demographers had been able to account for Holland’s rising rates of out-of-wedlock birth. In various publications, Garssen has argued persuasively that historically low out-of-wedlock birthrates in the Netherlands are rooted in traditionalism. Together with British demographer David Coleman, Garssen has suggested that continued low out-of-wedlock births in the Netherlands could mark out the Dutch system as a moderately traditionalist alternative to the Swedish model. Yet the record of the past seven years calls that into serious question. So how do Garssen and his colleagues explain the recent surge in parental cohabitation? They don’t: Garssen has canvassed the experts, and they’re stumped. None of the conventional explanations for increased births outside of marriage works.

And Garssen explicitly rejects an explanation that might be offered by gay-marriage advocates. In 1996 the Dutch parliament approved a system of “registered partnerships,” open to both homosexual and heterosexual couples. Registered partnerships went into effect in 1998, and formal same-sex marriage followed in 2000. So perhaps the recent surge in out-of-wedlock births was caused when registered partnerships drew heterosexual parents into non-marital unions. Yet Garssen notes that the number of registered heterosexual partnerships is too small to explain the surge in the out-of-wedlock birthrate. (The number of heterosexual parents in registered partnerships is inflated, since many couples convert to easily dissolved registered partnership as a way of ending their marriages without a formal divorce hearing.)

But note that Garssen and his colleagues recognize that something needs to be explained. The sharp, seven-year rise in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate is not something that Dutch demographers expected or predicted. They consider it a break from the past, and not a mere continuation of earlier trends.


As we’ve seen, the upswing in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate coincides with the enactment of registered partnerships and gay marriage. A diligent search for alternative explanations, such as access to contraception and women in the workforce, yields nothing that correlates well with the rise of out-of-wedlock birthrates in the Netherlands. Both opponents and supporters of gay marriage linked the willingness to embrace same-sex marriage with increasing social and legal acceptance of cohabitation rather than marriage for couples with children. Although pinpointing cause and effect raises particular challenges when studying the intricacies of human social life, there are now at least strong indications that Dutch gay marriage has contributed significantly to the decline of Dutch marriage.

Perhaps there is an alternative explanation. But it is up to those who wish to argue that gay marriage has not undermined marriage in the Netherlands to provide a more plausible reason for the last seven years of Dutch marital decline.

Of course, social-science evidence is seldom definitive. We can and should call for more research, and I hope other family scholars take up the question in a serious way. But at a minimum, we ought to be able to achieve a consensus on what has not happened in the Netherlands: There is no evidence to support the Rauch-Sullivan hypothesis–namely, that gay marriage will help strengthen marriage as a social institution.

The “conservative case” for gay marriage appears just plain wrong. In Scandinavia and in the Netherlands, marriage has substantially weakened in the years since registered partnerships and formal gay marriage have been debated and enacted. Whether or not you agree that gay marriage has helped to cause this decline, it is already evident that gay marriage has done nothing to strengthen marriage as a whole.

Who has the burden of proof here? I would argue that the burden lies with the advocates of radical change to the existing definition of marriage, one that no society we know of has embraced, to show that this kind of social experiment will do no harm.

Given the fact that marriage in both Scandinavia and the Netherlands is in dramatic decline, it is now up to the advocates of same-sex marriage to show why we should believe them when they say that same-sex marriage won’t deeply weaken marriage as a social institution, block efforts to strengthen the connection between marriage and parenting, and commit law and government to the idea that many kinds of alternative family structures deserve the same legal protections as mothers and fathers united in marriage.


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