Politics & Policy

Standing Out

The sharp increase of non-marital births in the Netherlands needs some explaining.

Marriage in the Netherlands is in serious trouble. You don’t have to take my word for it, because even the Netherlands’ own statistical agency is making the same point. In this 2004 report “Trends in samenwonon en trouwen” (“Trends in cohabitation and marriage”), Jan Latten of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics paints a picture of radical institutional decline. And the most recent data from the Netherlands is fully consistent with this picture. At a minimum, this means that the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage has been refuted in the Dutch case. More than that, I argue, all signs point to same-sex marriage as a significant causal factor in Dutch marital decline.

Many causes have contributed to the institutional decline of marriage in the West since the 1960s, so it’s never easy to isolate a single one. What would a best-case scenario for isolating the causal effect of same-sex marriage look like? Well, the clearest case would be a Western country in which marital decline actually accelerated after the introduction of same-sex marriage, or its near equivalent. The accelerated rate of decline would be sharper than in comparably situated countries without gay marriage during the same period. Analysis of social and legal changes would show that alternative causes were unlikely to account for the decline. And a qualitative cultural analysis would point to specific reasons why the idea of same-sex marriage might lead to broader marital decline. The Dutch case is important because it meets all of these criteria.

Examining The Dutch Case

Until 1997, when the Netherlands legalized Registered Partnerships, the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate was notably low. After 1997, the rate of non-marital births began to accelerate twice as quickly as it had been. This accelerated increase in the out-of-wedlock birthrate has continued now for eight straight years, outstripping the pace of growth in any other Western European country during the same period. In “No Explanation,” I showed that the usual causes of marital decline could not account for what’s been happening in the Netherlands since 1997. And in “Going Dutch?” I showed why even Dutch supporters of same-sex marriage think of the change as undercutting rather than supporting the privileged status of marriage itself.

Defenders of same-sex marriage have two main replies to this causal case. First, they say that Dutch marriage has been declining since 1970, long before the introduction of Registered Partnerships or gay marriage. Second, gay marriage proponents say that other countries–particularly in Eastern Europe–have experienced recent increases in their out-of-wedlock birthrates comparable to those in Holland. Neither of these objections stands up to scrutiny.

Like marriage throughout the West, Dutch marriage has been in decline for forty years. Yet the sharp increase in the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate began in 1997, and this acceleration has to be explained. Yes, in Eastern Europe marriage has been collapsing at something like the rapid rate we see in the Netherlands. But as we’ll see, that can be explained by the economic crisis that followed the collapse of Communism. Nothing comparable to that deep social trauma occurred in the Netherlands. What’s striking is that so relatively prosperous a Western European country as the Netherlands should be experiencing the same crisis-like decline in marriage that we find in the economically struggling East.

The Decline

First let’s have a look at Dutch demographer Jan Latten’s 2004 portrait of Dutch marital decline. To all appearances, Latten is a social liberal who would happily defend recent changes in Dutch family life. That only makes Latten’s account of marital decline more powerful.

Here is Latten’s summary of the state of marriage in the Netherlands: “More cohabiting, more children born to unmarried couples, more family breakups among unmarried couples….The development of relationships and families is seen as a strictly private affair, while restrictions imposed from the outside–in the form of marriage, parenthood or divorce-could only serve to limit the freedom of individuals within these settings.” “The citizen,” says Latten, “has retreated from the public square.” He continues, “More and more children are born out of wedlock. Here too we find a shift away from formal frameworks….people view not just relationships but even parenthood as an exclusively personal affair.”

We already know that the Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate began increasing more quickly in the mid-1990s. Latten’s more extensive data confirm this: “the number of informal two-parent families as a share of the total number of couples has almost tripled between 1995 and 2003. The number of formal two-parent families (married couples with children) on the other hand, has decreased.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage argue that these increases in the out-of-wedlock birthrate are less disturbing than they appear because many cohabiting parents eventually marry. Latten’s data tell a different story. Even the practice of marrying before the arrival of a second child is now in decline. Says Latten: “Remarkably, the number of second and further children born to unmarried parents in the period 1995-2003 has risen relatively sharply. This could be an indication of the fact that the norm of staying unmarried is spreading at an increasing pace. It means the informalisation of parenthood has reached a stage where the very concept of family life has become a subject of diffusion.”

The increase in unmarried parenthood for even second-born children (and later ones as well) is probably Latten’s most striking finding. But the numbers for first-born children are also arresting: “Today, 40 percent of all firstborn children are born out of wedlock. Marriage is fast losing its status as the essential sine qua non condition of parenthood.” (Remember, just a few years ago the Netherlands was touted for its unusually low out-of-wedlock birthrate.) Since unmarried parents break up at substantially higher rates than married parents, the end result of all this, says Latten, is more “informal” divorce among cohabiting parental couples.

Latten goes on to report on a survey of Dutch attitudes toward marriage. Whereas in 1992, 68 percent of Dutch men and women said that “marriage mattered to them,” that number had declined to 45 percent by 2003. And the key change in Dutch family life in the intervening period? Gay marriage, of course.

An Untenable Defense

Even before we knew of Latten’s powerful portrait of institutional decline, it was clear that events in Holland were not going well for Jonathan Rauch’s “conservative case” for same-sex marriage. Rauch’s notion that gay marriage will actually strengthen marriage for heterosexuals has gotten no support. In November of 2005, in a fascinating discussion at Cathy Young’s blog The Y Files, University of Minnesota professor of law and same-sex marriage advocate Dale Carpenter distanced himself from Rauch: “I’ve never thought that gay marriage would have much of an effect on marriage either way.” Yet Carpenter went on to float a hypothetical defense of Rauch: “Rauch could plausibly argue that without gay marriage, the decline in marriage [in the Netherlands] would be even worse than it has been….”

This is not a plausible defense. The conservative case for same-sex marriage is a totally unproven hypothesis. And now the country where formal same-sex marriage has been in place longer than anywhere else is experiencing faster marital decline than any other country in Western Europe. Supposing that things would have been even worse without gay marriage simply assumes what needs to be proven. In fact, the sharp decline of Dutch marriage strongly suggests that gay marriage weakens marriage, not the reverse. And as I showed at length in “Going Dutch?” the Dutch don’t think about same-sex marriage in the conservative way Rauch expects them to.

Jan Latten’s account bears this out. Latten could have treated same-sex marriage as a counter-trend to the process of family “informalisation.” After all, at least technically, gay marriage entails more family formalization, not less. Yet this is not how Latten treats the matter. Instead, Latten treats same-sex marriage as yet another instantiation of the principle that individuals have the right to define and shape their relationships however they want. As Latten treats it, same-sex marriage is one of a series of developments that move family life further into the private realm. In “Going Dutch?” I showed that Dutch supporters of same-sex marriage have long viewed the innovation in exactly this light.

So the notion that gay marriage will strengthen marriage for straight folks is confuted by both statistical and cultural data. It has received no support from the Dutch example, while much evidence contradicts it. Yet even if Carpenter was right and Dutch marriage would have been slightly weaker had same-sex marriage not been enacted, Dutch marriage has already deteriorated so far and so fast that any hypothetical strengthening effect of same-sex marriage must obviously be trivial.

By the way, Latten predicts that Dutch marriage will continue to decline. He expects that the number of unmarried parents will increase by what he calls “a stunning 119 percent” by 2050.

Dropping Fast

In 2004, the same year that Latten’s essay (in Dutch) on the decline of Dutch marriage came out, Joop Garssen, Latten’s colleague at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics, co-published a brief English language article in Canada’s National Post denying that Dutch marriage was in trouble, or that same-sex marriage had undermined it. Garssen was echoing the earlier arguments of his co-author, M.V. Lee Badgett, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, and research director of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies.

Garssen and Badgett denied that there was a Dutch family-crisis. After all, they noted, Dutch children up to the age of four still live with their fathers at a rate higher than the European average. Yet this evades the central point. Unmarried parents break up at higher rates, and the number of cohabiting parents is growing with unusual rapidity in Holland. Dutch marriage has always been far more stable than marriage in, say, Scandinavia. The Dutch may still be a bit above the Western European average, but the point is that they are falling from their erstwhile family traditionalism with virtually unmatched rapidity.

Garssen and Badgett also claimed that most unmarried Dutch parents eventually tie the knot. Well, “most” may, but many do not. Since unmarried parents break up at far higher rates than married parents, many cohabiting parental couples split up before they can marry. And we’ve just seen Latten’s “remarkable” data on the sharp increase in the rate of second-and-further children born to unmarried parents. The norm of remaining unmarried, even after the first child, is “spreading at an increasing pace,” says Latten.

Garssen and Badgett grant that the Dutch out-of-wedlock births rose at a steeper pace from 1990 to 2003. (We now know that the rapid rise continued in 2004.) But they note that “a similar increase in non-marital births occurred in Ireland, Luxembourg, Hungary, and Lithuania, all countries that do not give same-sex couples partnership or marriage.” “We obviously can’t blame the rise in non-marital births in those countries on gay marriage, so why should we think that’s what happened in the Netherlands?”

This argument fails. Garssen himself, in his work with Arno Sprangers, explains the rapidly rising Irish out-of-wedlock birthrate by pointing to the severely restricted availability of birth control and abortion. The Netherlands, by contrast, has had near universal availability of both contraception and abortion for decades. By his own account then, Garssen should not expect the causes of the rising Irish out-of-wedlock birthrate to be duplicated in the Netherlands. And Luxembourg’s out-of-wedlock birthrate is moving up only about half as quickly as it is in the Netherlands.

There Was No “Anomie” In The Netherlands

That leaves only Hungary and Lithuania with increases in their out-of-wedlock birthrate comparable to the Netherlands. Yet there is a clear alternative explanation for rapidly rising non-marital birthrates in these and other Eastern European countries: the collapse of Communism. I treated this in “Dutch Debate,” but recent scholarly work allows us to see still more clearly why the Eastern European situation is so different from the Netherlands.

The collapse of Communism in the early 1990s plunged Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union into a deeply disruptive economic and social situation for which there is simply no parallel in the Netherlands. Not only did Eastern Europe’s economies sink; government supports that had previously been available to married couples disappeared. Demographers agree that the radical economic and political insecurity in the post-Communist transition era forced families to delay marriage, which in turn led to the rapid rise of parental cohabitation. The social-economic crisis that followed the collapse of Communism led to a period of normless “anomie,” which was followed in the mid-1990s by an unusually rapid infusion of postmodern family norms from the West.

As summarized by prominent Eastern European demographer, Dimiter Philipov, in “Major trends affecting families in Central and Eastern Europe,” the rapid change in Eastern European family life, “…developed in a time of a historical societal change from a totalitarian to more democratic regimes. In this respect they are unique as compared to other parts of the world, and with western countries in particular.” It’s impossible to read Philipov’s essay (see especially pp. 1, 9-11, 22-23), or to read Margarete C. Kulik’s recent study of Hungarian cohabitation, without recognizing that the rise of parental cohabitation in the Eastern bloc cannot be equated with the situation in the Netherlands.

On the contrary, the Eastern European comparison only sharpens the causal question. How can we account for the fact that a stable and prosperous Western European country like The Netherlands is experiencing marital decline at a rate matched only by countries which have suffered severe social, political, and economic dislocation? Why would a country with a notably traditional attitude toward marriage and parenthood all of a sudden experience such a remarkable and long-lasting spike in its out-of-wedlock birthrate? The answer is that, once marriage stops being about binding mothers and fathers together for the sake of their children, the need to get married gradually disappears. That’s why I’ve argued that the soaring Dutch out-of-wedlock birthrate has everything to do with gay marriage.


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