Politics & Policy

Dutch Debate

Despite a challenge, the evidence stands: Marriage is in decline in the Netherlands.

There’s a new development in the story of Europe’s marriage meltdown. Recently, a group of five scholars in the Netherlands issued a letter addressed to “parliaments of the world debating the issue of same-sex marriage.” The Netherlands was the first country to adopt full-fledged same-sex marriage, and this letter is the first serious indication of Dutch concern about the consequences of that decision. So it’s worth quoting the letter at some length. After citing a raft of statistics documenting the decline of Dutch marriage, here is some of what these scholars had to say:

…there is as yet no definitive scientific evidence to suggest the long campaign for the legalization of same-sex marriage contributed to these harmful trends. However, there are good reasons to believe the decline in Dutch marriage may be connected to the successful public campaign for the opening of marriage to same-sex couples in the Netherlands. After all, supporters of same-sex marriage argued forcefully in favor of the (legal and social) separation of marriage from parenting. In parliament, advocates and opponents alike agreed that same-sex marriage would pave the way to greater acceptance of alternative forms of cohabitation.

In our judgment, it is difficult to imagine that a lengthy, highly visible, and ultimately successful campaign to persuade Dutch citizens that marriage is not connected to parenthood and that marriage and cohabitation are equally valid ‘lifestyle choices’ has not had serious social consequences….

There are undoubtedly other factors that have contributed to the decline of the institution of marriage in our country. Further scientific research is needed to establish the relative importance of all these factors. At the same time, we wish to note that enough evidence of marital decline already exists to raise serious concerns about the wisdom of the efforts to deconstruct marriage in its traditional form.

You can read an interview with two of the letter’s signers here, and a front-page news story about the letter in the Dutch paper, Reformatorisch Dagblad, here.

Undeniable Decline

During last week’s Federal Marriage Amendment debate, many senators referred to the Dutch scholars’ statement, and to marital decline in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Of course, you probably haven’t heard about that, because, for the most part, the American press has refused to report the story.

Even so, gay-marriage advocates are worried. M. V. Lee Badgett, research director for the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, has issued a new critique of my work on Scandinavia and the Netherlands. In “Unhealthy Half-Truths,” I refuted Badgett’s first attack. Now she’s back. Badgett’s critique of my work is long on statistical tricks and short on engagement with my actual argument.

The bottom line is the neither Badgett nor anyone else has been able to get around the fact that marriage in both Scandinavia and the Netherlands is in deep decline. In Scandinavia, that decline began before same-sex registered partnerships were established, but has continued apace ever since. In the Netherlands, marital decline accelerated dramatically, in tandem with the growing campaign for gay marriage.

The strategies for evading these hard truths don’t work. Gay-marriage advocates regularly cite steady or improving rates of marriage and divorce in Scandinavian countries to prove that all is well. I’ve shown repeatedly that these numbers are misleading. Scandinavian marriage numbers are inflated by remarriages among the large number of divorced, for example. Scandinavian divorce numbers omit legally unrecorded breakups among the ever-increasing number of cohabiting parents. Total family dissolution rates in Scandinavia are actually up. I’ve made these points before, but Badgett and others just keep citing the misleading numbers.

European demographers know perfectly well that marriage in Scandinavia is in deep trouble. British demographer David Coleman and senior Dutch demographer Joop Garssen have written that “marriage is becoming a minority status” in Scandinavia. In Denmark, a slight majority of all children are still born within marriage. Yet citing the 60 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate for firstborn children, Danish demographers Wehner, Kambskard, and Abrahamson argue that marriage has ceased to be the normative setting for Danish family life.

All About the Family

Badgett uses several tricks to dodge the problem of out-of-wedlock birthrates in excess of 50 percent. Most cohabiting parents eventually marry, Badgett emphasizes. Because of that, if you look at the number of Norwegian children who are actually living with their own married parents, it is 61 percent. Well, that is certainly more than half, but a number that low hardly means that Norwegian marriage is strong. And as I showed in “Unhealthy Half-Truths,” in Norway’s pro-gay-marriage north, the numbers of Norwegian children actually living with their own married parents is now almost certainly at or below 50 percent.

Of course, the fact that “most” cohabiting parents in Scandinavia eventually marry slides over the core point. A great many parental cohabiters break up before they ever decide to marry–and they do so at rates two to three times higher than married parents. So many cohabiting parents break up before they ever decide to marry that demographer Mai Heide Ottosen has said, “to be a child of young [Danish] parents nowadays has become a risky affair.”

Badgett cites a study showing that American children spend even less time in total with their own married parents than Norwegians. But that study’s Norwegian data comes from the 1980s. Since then, America’s family disruptions have leveled off while Norway’s have worsened. In any case, staging a family-stability contest between America and Scandinavia misses the point. American families are unstable because of our high divorce rates and sky-high rates of underclass single parenting. The fact that our family system has weakened is precisely the problem. America’s already significant family vulnerabilities would be pushed beyond the breaking point if Scandinavian-style parental cohabitation spread here. Today, more than ten percent of American children are born to cohabiting parents. And studies show that cohabiting parents in America break up at a much higher rate than they already do in Scandinavia. So a spike in Scandinavian-style parental cohabitation in America would deal a major new blow to our already vulnerable family system.

Badgett ignores my points about the differences between Norway’s socially liberal north and it’s more conservative and religious south. The parts of Norway where same-sex unions are most accepted have by far the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates. That helps make my causal point. It also helps explain why Norway’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is rising more slowly now–something Badgett makes much of. Rising Norwegian out-of-wedlock births have hit a wall of resistance in the recalcitrant, religious south.

In any case, at very high levels, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has to rise more slowly. That’s because super-high out-of-wedlock birthrates signal a radical shift in the way parents think about marriage. In the early stages of Scandinavian-style cohabitation, parents think of first, and even second born children as tests of a relationship that might someday eventuate in marriage. But as parental cohabitation grows in popularity parents have two or more children without getting married at all. So out-of-wedlock birthrates rise more slowly as they move beyond the 40- and 50-percent marks because they are pushing through the final and toughest pockets of cultural support for marriage. That’s why the slow but steady increase in Norway’s already high out-of-wedlock birthrates is so frightening. It shows that even the resistant and conservative south is beginning to accept parental cohabitation, while the liberal north is beginning to abandon the idea of marriage altogether.

Okay, says Badgett, let’s provisionally grant Kurtz’s distinction between high and low-out-wedlock birthrate countries. Even given that, says Badgett, out-of-wedlock births have been “soaring” in some traditionally low out-of-wedlock birthrate nations (Ireland, Luxembourg, Hungary, Lithuania, and several other eastern European countries). And none of them but the Netherlands has gay marriage. So how could gay marriage be the cause of higher out of wedlock birthrates in the Netherlands when comparable countries that don’t have gay marriage have similar rises?

Gay marriage is not the only cause of rising out-of-wedlock birthrates. I never said it was and it doesn’t take a demographer to realize that lots of factors contribute to husbandless women having babies. In fact the out-of-wedlock birthrates that are rising so rapidly in the countries Badgett cites are rising for a distinct and clear reason. These nations are economically and culturally modernizing. For good or ill, they are increasingly adopting postmodern sexual mores, yet provide only limited access to contraception and/or abortion. That juxtaposition of divergent and even contradictory family and sexual systems creates problems. In Ireland, for example, sexual mores are loosening. Yet the Irish still tightly restrict contraception and abortion. That combination has pushed out-of-wedlock birthrates way up.

Something similar is happening in Lithuania, and in other eastern European countries. In a recent study of contraceptive availability in Europe, Erik Klijzing found that contraceptives were far less available in Lithuania and Bulgaria than in other European countries. Some eastern European nations have as little access to contraception as third-world countries. Curiously, of all the countries Klijzing studied, only in Lithuania do educated people have even less access to contraceptives than uneducated people. That fits the model of a culturally modernizing population with loosening sexual mores, but poor access to contraception. The result is soaring out of wedlock birthrates. (Some will use this to argue for more contraception. Others will argue for abstinence education and a renewal of tradition. My point here is simply that, either way, changes in sexual practices and attitudes have consequences.)

Badgett does list a country that doesn’t have limited contraception: Luxembourg. But while Luxembourg’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is rising, it’s moving up only about half as fast as rates in Ireland, Lithuania, and the Netherlands.

Hungary is the only country that Badgett lists besides the Netherlands that has widely available birth control but a rapidly rising rate of out-of-wedlock births. This does seem to be related to greater cultural individualism. But another factor is the economic stress that has hit eastern Europe as a whole since the collapse of Communism. Under Communism, governments allotted good apartments to married couples. In the post-Communist era that incentive to marriage has disappeared. Large apartments are now too expensive for many couples to afford in stressed economic times. What used to be an incentive to marriage has turned into a disincentive. Yet nothing of this sort is happening in Holland.

The Evidence Is Clear

So the real question raised by Badgett’s comparison is why Holland should be virtually the only traditionally low out-of-wedlock birthrate country in which couples have easy access to birth control where out-of-wedlock birthrates are now “soaring?” I’m grateful to Badgett for (inadvertently) drawing this additional factor to my attention. Rather than weakening my point, it greatly strengthens it. It is clearer than ever that something very unusual is happening in the Netherlands. Demographically, we have a kind of Dutch exceptionalism–and the key difference is that the Dutch added gay marriage to their precarious balance between socially liberal attitudes and traditional family practices. Gay marriage–not restricted contraception or the collapse of Communism–upset that balance, with the result that the out-of-wedlock birthrate began to zoom.

The decline of marriage in the Netherlands in tandem with the growing success of the Dutch movement for gay marriage is the clearest example of gay marriage’s impact on marital decline. Badgett does her best to evade the problem by claiming that the increase in non-marital births began before Dutch registered partnerships took effect in early 1998. That is a weak argument, since an increase of two-percentage points in the out-of-wedlock birthrate for seven consecutive years is rare. It was anything but inevitable that a two-percent increase in non-marital births in 1997 would be followed by six consecutive increases at the same level. In any case, the final vote to establish registered partnerships took place in 1997.

But the deeper point is that the meaning of traditional marriage was transformed every bit as much by the decade-long national movement for gay marriage in Holland as by eventual legal success. That’s why the impact of gay marriage on declining Dutch marriage rates and rising out-of-wedlock birthrates begins well before the actual legal changes were instituted. The recent statement by five Dutch scholars takes exactly that position.

Badgett has no trouble accepting the idea that gay marriage might be an effect of an increasing cultural separation between marriage and parenthood. But how could gay marriage be a product of this cultural trend without also locking in and reinforcing that same cultural stance? I’ve offered abundant cultural evidence that the message conveyed by gay marriage does in fact reinforce acceptance of parental cohabitation.

The Dutch scholars are right. Many factors are in play in European marital decline, and more research is needed to separate out the relative importance of the various factors. But continued marital decline in Scandinavia and the Netherlands has already provided us with enough evidence to call the wisdom of same-sex marriage into serious doubt.


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